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15 proven ways to get your kids to eat healthier meals

10. Try new foods when they're hungry

15 proven ways to get your kids to eat healthier meals

I'm often asked what parents can do to get their kids to eat healthily. While there are no quick fixes, I've gathered a list of proactive, research-based actions parents can take to positively influence their kids eating habits.

1. Eat well during pregnancy + lactation

Helping kids accept nutritious fare starts at conception. The amniotic sac not only transmits nutrition but the flavors of the food eaten. Studies show that the wider range of flavors babies are exposed to in utero and through breast milk, may help to increase their preference for a more diversified diet later on.

A 2001 study published in Pediatrics assigned 46 women to consume either water or carrot juice for 4 weeks prenatally. When the infants were given carrot flavored cereal at 6 months of age, the babies whose moms drank the carrots juice had few negative expressions and seemed to enjoy the cereal more.

2. Get in as much variety as you can

Most babies and toddlers under two are willing to eat just about anything. Research suggests that the more dietary variety kids get in the very early years, the more accepting they will be later on.

So start with bland fruits and vegetables but up the ante. Use herbs, spices, garlic and onions to make food taste good. Once kids can eat table foods, let them join you at the dinner table. Your mission is to get them to try as many flavors as possible.

3. Make the unfamiliar familiar (and accessible)

Research suggests that repeated exposure is the most powerful tool when it comes to helping children accept new foods. A 2003 study published in Appetite showed daily exposure was much more effective than nutrition education or doing the same old thing.

But experts in behavioral economics say parents need to go a step further by making healthy foods highly accessible. So lay out an attractive bowl of fruit on the kitchen table. Include veggies with dip with meals and while you're preparing dinner. Studies show the visibility of food increases desire to eat it.

4. Show them how it's done

"I've learned that at this stage, they so much want to be like their parents, so if I'm enjoying a nice green salad and broccoli or asparagus, they want to try it too," says Lauren O'Connor, MS, RD, dietitian and mom of twin preschoolers.

Now this may not happen automatically for every kid, but research supports the notion that kids are more likely to eat a food when they see their parents eating it.

5. Make time for family meals

Family meals combine the benefits of repeated exposure with role modeling. It also teaches kids how to behave at the dinner table and gives families time to connect. I know your schedules may be wacky, but get this habit going as soon as you can.

Kathleen Cuneo, PhD, from Dinner Together says that switching from special kid meals to family meals was the turning point for her now teenage daughter. "I saw a positive change when I stopped nagging her and we made a commitment to family meals," she says. "When I backed off and she was expected to eat from what was made available, she became open to trying new foods."

6. Entice them with food names

Parents can learn something that restaurant owners already know you need to make food sound tantalizing. In his studies, Brian Wansink, author of Mindless Eating, demonstrates that the name we give a food can make a big difference in how children perceive it. In one of his studies, when the researchers called veggies names like "X-ray carrots" or "princess peas" kids were 60% more likely to try it.

"Dinosaur broccoli reminds kids of dinosaursand they think they are cooler," he says. "Re-naming food increases its appeal"

7. Use familiar sauces + dressings

Research suggests that children are more likely to accept new foods if they are similar to other recipes they like. In a previous post, Alexandra Logue, PhD, Psychology Professor and author of The Psychology of Eating and Drinking, discussed how some fussy eaters are super tastersand she used to be one of them.

When she first started eating salad her mom put a lot of her favorite dressing in the bowl and a small amount of vegetables. Over time the dressing quantity decreased and the vegetables increased. This is how she learned to like salads.

8. Engage them in the process

Julie Negrin, certified nutritionist and cooking instructor, knows that getting kids involved in the kitchen can transform their relationship with food. She says that because kids feel little control over their day to day environment, helping with meals gives children a sense of ownership and makes it more likely they will eat the meal.

"I encourage parents to have kids pick out new vegetables at the market or flip through cookbooks for menu ideas," she says. "Kids have been helping with the meal preparation in almost every culture for thousands of years. It's how they find their place in the "tribe" and the world around them."

9. Help them make the health-body connection

When certified pediatric dietitian, Angela Lemond, works with frustrated parents, she teaches them the three Es: Educate, Expose and Empower. The education part is helping kids understand how certain foods relate back to the health of their body.

"I tell my kids how fruits and vegetables have super-powers," she says. "For example, I explain how these super powers put an imaginary shield around their bodies protecting them from germs and helping their boo-boos heal faster."

10. Try new foods when they are hungry

You probably notice there are times of day when your child is more hungry than others. Work with your child's natural appetite rhythm. If they typically eat small amounts at dinner but seem ravenous at lunch, try new foods then. And watch the in-between meal snacking and juice drinking that can be appetite killers.

11. Go for the crunch

It's not always the taste of veggies that turn kids off it's the texture. Researchers from Wageningen University provided kids (4 to 12) carrots and green beans that were steamed, mashed, grilled, boiled and deep fried. The kids preferred the boiled and steamed versions. Why? Because they were crunchier, had little browning and less of a granular texture.

So experiment with different crunchy textures and see how it goes.

12. Pair the new items with old standbys

Lisa Gross, dietitian and mom of two young kids said that when her daughter was two, and turned ultra picky, she was tempted to provide her with only her favorites (she loved pasta!).

"I just kept offering the same food we ate but always offered fruit, bread and some accompaniment that she would eat," she says. "I hoped that she would outgrow this stage and now that she's five it's much better."

13. Serve fruits + veggies first

According to a 2010 study published in American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, preschoolers served bigger portions of vegetables as a first course at 47% more.

So put out the fruits and veggies while you're putting the meal together, your kids might eat whole serving of fruits and vegetables, and then some.

14. Make nutritious food fun

When a group of 4 to 7 year olds were presented with two versions of fruit, one cut into fun shapes and the other not, the kids presented with the fun shapes ate twice as much fruit.

While the researchers of the study published in Appetite say that the novelty can wear off, it's important to remember that kids like fun. And if we can present food in a fun and attractive way it can pique their interest and desire.

15. Give them a choice

According to Smarter Lunchrooms, requiring kids to take a vegetable at school has no impact on consumption. But if kids are given the choice between two veggies, they consume 20 percent more.

When you can, have your child decide between two items, the peas or carrots, banana or cantaloupe. This helps them feel like they made the decision of what vegetable to eat. And they might respond by eating it.

And whatever happens, try not to stress, mama. Jennifer from The Mommy Archives said it well, "One of the feeding issues I had was with me. I realized that I was the one that was panicking when I made a meal and he wouldn't even try it. I would be so worried he wasn't getting enough nutrients. Once I let that go, and let him set the pace of trying new foods, our meals became so much less stressful."

Originally posted on Maryann Jacobsen.

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Tips parents need to know about poor air quality and caring for kids with asthma

There are steps parents can take to keep their children as healthy as possible.

When wildfires struck the West Coast in September 2020, there was a lot for parents to worry about. For parents of children with asthma, though, the danger could be even greater. "There are more than 400 toxins that are present in wildfire smoke. That can activate the immune system in ways that aren't helpful by both causing an inflammatory response and distracting the immune system from fighting infection," says Amy Oro, MD, a pediatrician at Stanford Children's Health. "When smoke enters into the lungs, it causes irritation and muscle spasms of the smooth muscle that is around the small breathing tubes in the lungs. This can lead to difficulty with breathing and wheezing. It's really difficult on the lungs."

With the added concern of COVID-19 and the effect it can have on breathing, many parents feel unsure about how to keep their children protected. The good news is that there are steps parents can take to keep their children as healthy as possible.

Here are tips parents need to know about how to deal with poor air quality when your child has asthma.

Minimize smoke exposure.

Especially when the air quality index reaches dangerous levels, it's best to stay indoors as much as possible. You can find out your area's AQI at AirNow.gov. An under 50 rating is the safest, but between 100-150 is considered unhealthy for sensitive groups, such as children with asthma. "If you're being told to stay indoors, listen. If you can, keep the windows and doors closed," Oro says.

Do your best to filter the air.

According to Oro, a HEPA filter is your best bet to effectively clean pollutants from the air. Many homes are equipped with a built-in HEPA filter in their air conditioning systems, but you can also get a canister filter. Oro says her family (her husband and children all suffer from asthma) also made use of a hack from the New York Times and built their own filter by duct taping a HEPA furnace filter to the front of a box fan. "It was pretty disgusting what we accumulated in the first 20 hours in our fan," she says.

Avoid letting your child play outside or overly exert themselves in open air.

"Unfortunately, cloth masks don't do very much [to protect you from the smoke pollution]," Oro says. "You really need an N95 mask, and most of those have been allocated toward essential workers." To keep at-risk children safer, Oro recommends avoiding brisk exercise outdoors. Instead, set up an indoor obstacle course or challenge your family to jumping jacks periodically to keep everyone moving safely.

Know the difference between smoke exposure and COVID-19.

"COVID-19 can have a lot of the same symptomsdry cough, sore throat, shortness of breath and chest pain could overlap. But what COVID and other viruses generally cause are fever, chills, vomiting, diarrhea and body aches. Those would tell you it's not just smoke exposure," Oro says. When a child has been exposed to smoke, they often complain of a "scrape" in their throat, burning eyes, cough, shortness of breath, chest pain or wheezing. If the child has asthma, parents should watch for a flare of symptoms, such as coughing, wheezing or a tight sensation in their chest.

Unfortunately, not much is known about long-term exposure to wildfire smoke on a healthy or compromised immune system, but elevated levels of air pollution have been associated with increased COVID-19 rates. That's because whenever there's an issue with your immune system, it distracts your immune system from fighting infections and you have a harder time fighting off viruses. Limiting your exposure to wildfire smoke is your best bet to keep immune systems strong.

Have a plan in place if you think your child is suffering from smoke exposure.

Whatever type of medication your child takes for asthma, make sure you have it on-hand and that your child is keeping up with regular doses. Contact your child's pediatrician, especially if your area has a hazardous air qualitythey may want to adjust your child's medication schedule or dosage to prevent an attack. Oro also recommends that, if your child has asthma, it might be helpful to have a stethoscope or even a pulse oximeter at home to help diagnose issues with your pediatrician through telehealth.

Most importantly, don't panic.

In some cases, social distancing and distance learning due to COVID may be helping to keep sensitive groups like children with asthma safer. Oro says wildfires in past years have generally resulted in more ER visits for children, but the most recent fires haven't seen the same results. "A lot of what we've seen is that the smoke really adversely affects adults, especially older adults over 65," Oro says. "Children tend to be really resilient."

This article was sponsored by Stanford Children's Health. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

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