The quirky eating habits of kids can drive parents to distraction. Their appetites and desires vary from day to day. But many children are also naturally curious about where their food comes from and how it’s prepared. And when left to their own devices and presented with an array of healthy foods, kids can actually self-select a reasonably healthy diet.
Of course, the food choices kids make are influenced by family, friends and the media. At the same time, their natural instincts can help tilt the nutritional balance in their favor.
• Kids eat when they are hungry. Kids respond to biological signals that drive them to eat. As adults, we sometimes try to ignore these signals: maybe we’re too busy to eat, or we’re trying to lose weight. But this often leads to overeating later on. As adults, we need to respond when the body says it’s low on fuel.
• Kids stop when they are full. Kids generally know when they’ve had enough to eat – and unless they’re urged to eat more, they can regulate their calorie intake surprisingly well. Many adults are better able to manage their weight when they learn to stop eating when they are comfortable, not stuffed.
• Kids like foods that are full of eye-appeal. Children love colorful foods, which is why so many items marketed to kids are full of artificial colors. Mother nature provides a huge array of brightly hued fruits and vegetables that appeal to kids, and they’re full of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that promote health.
• Kids like crunchy vegetables more than soft ones. Crunchy vegetables, like raw carrots and broccoli florets, are more appealing to kids than soft or mushy ones. Kids many not know it, but vegetables that are raw, or lightly steamed until barely tender, retain more vitamins than vegetables that are overcooked.
• Kids like foods that are simply prepared. Most kids like to know what they’re eating, so fussy foods, or those covered in sauces or gravies are often rejected. Adults, take note: sauces, dressings and gravies can add calories and fat.
• Kids like to know where their food comes from. Children love to eat the foods they have grown. If you don’t have room for a garden, plant some tomatoes in pots, or visit the local farmer’s market. You and your kids will reap the benefits of fresh, local produce.
• Kids like to eat foods they’ve prepared. One tried-and-true method to get fussy eaters to try new foods is to have them help out in the kitchen. For adults, home cooking means you can control not only what goes into your meals, but portion sizes, too.
• Kids learn to like new foods. It may take a more than a few tries, but with repeated exposure kids will learn to like new foods. Adults often rely on the same foods over and over. Try a new fruit or vegetable on a regular basis to boost nutrition and put some variety in the diet.
• Kids like dairy products. Most kids like milk, and it’s one of best sources of calcium in the diet. But grown-ups need calcium, too. If you don’t like to drink it, use milk in shakes with protein powder or fruit, add it to soups, or try cooking rolled oats in milk instead of water.
To eat like a child doesn’t mean that we play with our food or make funny faces at the dinner table. But if we appreciate how kids naturally choose what to eat, and how much, we might actually learn how to eat better ourselves.
Susan is the Sr. Director of Worldwide Nutrition Education and Training at Herbalife, where she is responsible for the development of nutrition education and training materials, and is one of the primary authors of the Herbalife-sponsored blog, www.discovergoodnutrition.com. She is a Registered Dietitian and holds two Board Certifications from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics as a Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics, and a Certified Specialist in Obesity and Weight Management. Susan is also a Fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Susan graduated with distinction in biology from the University of Colorado, and received her master’s degree in Food Science and Nutrition from Colorado State University. She then completed her dietetic internship at the University of Kansas. Susan has taught extensively and developed educational programs targeted to individuals, groups and industry in her areas of expertise, including health promotion, weight management and sports nutrition.
Prior to her role at Herbalife, she was the assistant director of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition, and has held appointments as adjunct professor in nutrition at Pepperdine University and as lecturer in nutrition in the Department of Food Science and Nutrition at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.
Susan was a consultant to the (then) Los Angeles Raiders for six seasons, and was a contributing columnist for the Los Angeles Times Health Section for two years. She is a co-author of 23 research papers, 14 book chapters, and was a co-author of two books for the public: “What Color is Your Diet?” and “The L.A. Shape Diet” by Dr. David Heber, published by Harper Collins in 2001 and 2004, respectively.