Food for Kids: Here's How Parents Can Ensure Children Eat Well

Jill Castle

It's a New Year, and a new decade. It's an opportunity to assess what's working in life and where improvements can be made. Parents are often interested in the best foods for their kids or the latest trick to get them to eat.

I get it. The job of feeding children isn't easy, and parents have a strong desire to raise healthy children. So what can be done to achieve this goal and ensure kids eat well by improving "food parenting" in 2020 and beyond?

Here are a few changes I'd suggest making:

Feed Your Child More Plants

If only kids would eat their fruits and vegetables ... and whole grains and beans. Enter the plant-forward eating approach. Plant-forward eating simply shifts the balance of foods to more fruit, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds and plant oils, while cutting down the amount of meat and dairy in the diet. A practical approach to begin eating this way is to serve meat and dairy as a side, rather than as a main component of the meal.

Even better, introducing this type of eating pattern early may have positive effects on kids in their adults years. The roots of cardiovascular disease begin in childhood and are related to lifestyle and dietary habits. However, plant-based eating during childhood may promote heart health in adulthood, while reducing cardiovascular disease and promoting longevity and overall health, according to a 2018 study in Nutrition Reviews. Additionally, plant-based eating may also lower the risk of stroke, diabetes and many cancers, according to the American Heart Association.

[READ: Healthy Eating for Families.]

Model a Healthy Relationship With Food

Parents want to raise healthy eaters, but can get caught up in placing the focus on healthy food alone, missing a key ingredient to healthy eating: a healthy relationship with food. In a world of "junk" food and"toxic" ingredients, it can be very challenging to raise little people who know what to make of all these food descriptors. If children grow up hearing all this negativity around food, it may alter their attitudes toward food, and potentially lead to disturbed eating, dieting or even eating disorders.

Food is food, and everyone needs to eat. It's up to parents to purchase, cook and put food on the family table. Instead of demonizing foods or labeling them as good or bad, focus on the enjoyment of eating, exploring the flavors of food and how food makes the body "go and grow."

Be Flexible in Supporting Eating Habits That Will Last a Lifetime

When all is said and done and the kids have grown and flown the coop, what are the signs of good parenting around food and eating? To me, it's knowing children can navigate all foods, and cook and feed themselves in ways that support their health and happiness.

Of course, this doesn't happen overnight. In fact, it can take almost two decades of feeding and guiding kids before they become fully autonomous with eating and feeding themselves.

Helping a child develop a healthy relationship with food is tied to understanding child development and working with it, not against it. For example, toddlers want independence with eating. Try to control a toddler's eating, and parents may become locked in a power struggle with a picky eater. School-age kids want to be accepted by their friends. Some of their requests are tied to wanting to fit in, like asking for less-than-healthy foods or wanting to dine at a fast food establishment. Even for the teens who dabble in different eating patterns, this may simply reflect their developmental stage.

Understanding these nuances with nutrition and development can help parents respond to a child in nurturing ways that support growth and autonomy, getting the child one step closer to being self-sufficient.

[READ: What Parents Need to Know About Extreme Picky Eating]

Focus on Wellness, Not Weight

About a third of children and adolescents in the U.S. are overweight or obese. As a result, often the focus on improving kids' health centers around weight loss.

Yet, we've heard a lot about the dangers of dieting in kids. A 2016 article in Pediatrics described the relationship between obesity prevention and eating disorders, emphasizing a focus on healthy lifestyles, not weight. What's true is this: Placing kids on diets comes with a trade-off. Studies show doing so can negatively impact children's sense of self-worth, increase their body dissatisfaction and set them up for a future of roller-coaster dieting.

In the New Year, let's shift the focus and attention to wellness, and lose the diet approach. Focus on growing kids who appreciate and care for their own bodies, enjoy eating all kinds of foods, move freely with joy and value wellness over weight loss.

Nourish and Nurture

When parents think about child nutrition, they naturally think of food. But, feeding kids is much more than getting good food into their bodies. Parents also feed their minds and souls through everyday interactions around the kitchen table.

When we give kids nutritious food, we support their physical growth and development. Yet, when parents smile, join kids in a meal, enjoy their presence and take interest in their lives, they nurture children's self-worth. When parents allow children to explore food, cook and accept new foods (or reject them), they send the message that kids' interests, ideas and preferences matter -- and that they matter.

[See: 12 Questions You Should Ask Your Kids at Dinner.]

This is the foundation of good food parenting. Remember, what a child eats forms the basis of their health, now and down the road. How parents feed their children shapes kids' relationships with food, themselves, their bodies and others. And understanding developmental milestones makes a parent's job a little easier. So here's to helping your whole family eat well and enjoying meals together in the New Year and for years to come.

Jill Castle has been writing about childhood nutrition and feeding kids for U.S. News since 2017. Jill is an award-winning childhood nutrition expert, author, public speaker and pediatric nutrition consultant. She is known as a paradigm shifter who blends current research, practical application and common sense, making parents and professionals think differently about feeding kids. Whether it's babies or teens, toddlers or tweens, Jill takes a unique, "whole-child" approach to childhood nutrition, showcasing food and nutrients, positive feeding and childhood development as the cornerstones of raising a healthy child.

She is the author and co-author of "Eat Like a Champion" and "Fearless Feeding," respectively. She pens The Nourished Child blog and is the voice behind The Nourished Child podcast. A sought-after speaker and media contributor, Jill has been TEDx speaker and shared her expertise with professional and lay audiences alike, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, WIC, university groups and a range of other nutrition, medical, government and parent audiences. She serves on the board of advisors for Parents magazine and several child nutrition companies.

Formerly a clinical dietitian at Massachusetts General Hospital and what's now Boston Children's Hospital (formerly Children's Hospital Boston), Jill currently works with families in private practice and through her online programs. She aims to shape the future of childhood nutrition through educating parents, health care professionals and industry leaders. Jill lives in Connecticut with her husband, four children and two dogs.

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