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Written by Kristi King, clinical dietitian at Texas Children’s Hospital. 

Your child’s nutrition journey can have many ups and downs. Every day myself and the other registered dietitians at Texas Children’s Hospital are questioned by patient families about how to best handle some of these hurdles. Here are some of the most common questions we receive:

What are some common mistakes or misconceptions parents make or have when it comes to their children’s nutrition?

  • Myth: School lunches are not nutritious – School lunches are often portrayed as terrible for children. However, this is not always the case. If possible, parents should review the school’s menu ahead of time to see what is being offered. This allows parents to pack alternatives if there are options on the school lunch menu they feel are not nutritious enough.
  • Myth: Once a picky eater, always a picky eater – Taste buds change all of the time. Parents should continue to offer a variety of foods to help set healthy food habits. Just because a child refuses a food doesn’t mean they won’t ever like it.
  • Myth: Organic foods are better – When it comes to nutrients, there is not a significant difference between regular and organic foods.

Why is breakfast the most important meal of the day for children?

  • For children, breakfast is very important to help meet all of their nutrient needs and get their brains going for school. It’s a great time to get much-needed nutrients into children’s diets including vitamin D, fiber, vitamin C and B which will help get them through the day.
  • Skipping breakfast may have long-term effects. Breakfast skippers have been found to have higher risk of type 2 diabetes, higher risk of obesity as well as increased risk for heart attacks and hypertension.
  • Studies have shown children who eat breakfast in the morning perform better in school. Providing the body and brain with enough fuel allows them to concentrate on the board and not their rumbling tummies!
  • A few “life hacks” that may make breakfast time easier:
  • If you’re making pancakes on the weekend, make a few extra. They freeze great, so just microwave when ready to eat!
  • Hard boiled eggs are great to have on hand and super easy to grab and go.
  • Scrambled eggs can be made in the microwave!
  • Have you kids take responsibility for helping prepare breakfast or packing their breakfast to go. This will make them more likely to eat it.

What are some tactics to practicing good dietary habits?

  • Parents should make sure children are eating 3 meals per day and 1-2 snacks, dependent on age.
  • Half of a child’s plate at lunch and dinner should be fruits and veggies.
  • Consider low-fat dairy three times per day to help build strong bones.
  • Get children into the habit of drinking water! Eight to16 ounces in the morning, at lunch and again in the evening to help them stay hydrated.

What should parents look for when reading nutrition labels?

  • First, look at the portion sizes. Too often parents are over serving children without realizing it.
  • Looking at added sugars on the new label will be important. Parents should look for a low amount of added sugars.
  • Check to see if salt or sugar is listed in the top 5 ingredients. If so, parents should rethink the purchase and how much they will give children.
  • Check the sodium content. It is recommended that toddlers consume only 1500mg a day.

What is childhood obesity?

  • Childhood obesity is defined as when a child’s Body Mass Index (BMI) is greater than the 95th percentile for their age.
  • A child is considered overweight when his or her BMI is greater than the 85th percentile and lower than the 95th percentile for their age.
  • Parents should check with their pediatrician if they are concerned their child may be overweight or obese.

When should parents consider lifestyle changes for their child’s weight, and what are some examples?

  • Be the example! Do more physical activities with your kids. Parents should aim for at least 60 minutes of daily physical activity. This can include going for family walks, dance parties, playing tag, etc.
  • Include children on healthy grocery shopping trips. Explain to them why you are choosing different healthy items and the importance of eating nutrient rich foods.
  • Focus on keeping it EASY!
  • E – Exercise for 60 minutes a day
  • A – Always eat breakfast and a healthy snack
  • S – Sugar-free beverages
  • Y – Yes to vegetables

How can parents best discuss better eating habits with their children?

  • Focus on healthy lifestyle habits versus weight or size. This should also be a discussion the whole family is involved in versus singling a child out.
  • Ask  children what their idea of healthy eating is. This opens the door for great dialogue.
  • Don’t talk negatively about yourself or your body. Young girls and boys pick up on the negative language we use to describe ourselves.
  • Build up a child’s self-esteem by focusing on non-weight qualities. Assure children they are loved and make sure to point out good qualities regularly.

What are some easy healthy substitutions parents can make during meals and snack time?

  • Children should have a fruit at snack time and some sort of protein such as string cheese or yogurt.
  • Families can replace sugar-sweetened beverage with sugar-free ones such as water, low-fat milk or unsweet tea.
  • Make sure to vary lean protein sources. Some examples of good, alternative lean proteins include: beans, nuts, seeds, poultry, eggs or seafood.
  • Parents can switch up how they cook meats. The healthiest way to cook meats is baked, broiled or grilled.

What are your top tips for ensuring a healthy diet in children?

  • Variety and persistence are key!
  • Parents should make sure to offer all of the different food groups and continue to offer foods children don’t like.
  • Try preparing foods they “don’t like” in a new way or use a different spice – parents may surprise themselves and their children! 

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