I have a secret diet that works for all children and families to ensure
a healthy balance of fruits, vegetables, grains and proteins. It’s
The reality is that healthy food options exist nearly everywhere now. From
pre-cut fruits and vegetables at the supermarket to kids’ menus
featuring salmon and broccoli, nutritious foods abound. However, the reality
is also that birthday parties, afternoons with grandma and the snack food
aisle of Costco also exist.
Bridging both realities – knowing when to say “yes” to
treats and when to hold firm to healthier choices – will help cut
down on “food fights” between parents and kids and teach children
how to make sound choices for life.
Eating a healthy meal around the dinner table together is key to securing
a healthy diet, but what about outside the home? There is only so much
you can control as a parent, so take ownership of those things. For example,
when you’re staring into the gaping maw of an empty lunchbox, try
to fill it with foods that come from a farm, not a factory. Limit the
amount of ultra-processed foods and stuff that lunchbox with more natural,
whole-food options. Kids will learn to eat the healthier foods (no, really).
For parents of toddlers, keep in mind that the word “No” is
a natural part of their development. Sometimes foods need to be offered
eight to 10 times before they will eat it. Let the radishes or kale sit
on the plate without arguing about it. Eventually those veggies will make
their way into your curious kid’s mouth (after all, everything else does).
To hasten the process, consider asking your toddler to help you plant some
veggies in the backyard or in a community garden. When they have hands-on
experience with the gardening, shopping or cooking of foods, they become
more interested in eating them. My son, who is not in love with vegetables,
tends to be more adventurous when he’s had a hand in growing or
preparing a meal.
It also helps to limit what you have in the house. If there are no chips
and soda in your house, your kid can’t have any chips or soda. That’s
not to say that I don’t think there is a place for “junk”
on the plate. The USDA has revamped its classic food pyramid. It is now a
plate that features fruits, vegetables, grains and protein, with a small allotment
for dairy and absolutely no room for processed sugar.
This makes sense. Processed sugar is associated with cardiovascular disease,
diabetes, obesity and cancer. But it is also spun into perfectly pink
cotton candy at the count fair and mixed into the cupcakes that grandma
Going too far in limiting processed sugar could backfire. While I don’t
believe in desserts every night or in using food as a reward, sweets are
a part of life. And helping kids learn to navigate when to say yes is
an important lesson. If they’re sneaking sweets because you have
a no-sugar policy, they learn to associate food with guilt – and
they’re still eating the sweets!
Kids are smart. They listen to what we say and what we do. It may not appear
that way, but down the line what they see us eat and serve to them and
what they hear us say about food helps shape their eating habits for life.
So if we model good eating for them, fill their plates with healthy options
and help them learn when that occasional treat is warranted, they’ll
grow up to be healthy eaters.
That’s just the reality.
Dr. Terra Safer is a pediatrician and internal medicine physician based
in Newport Beach