March is National Nutrition Month: To teach healthy eating, parents should model healthy habits
Proper nutrition is important to the overall health of all human beings, but for growing and developing children, it’s essential.
The United States Department of Agriculture sets nutritional standards for school meals, affecting nearly 32 million children each day. These standards use nutrition science and real world circumstances of America’s schools to do right by American children’s health, according to the USDA.
But at home, where strategic portions of proteins, fruits, vegetables and whole grains aren’t regulated, it can be easy to fall into bad habits.
Many children develop picky eating habits, and parents often cater to those preferences. Yet, parents shouldn’t give up on certain foods and should continue to offer healthy choices and a variety of options, said Kevin Monahan, a physician assistant who specializes in pediatrics at Memorial Regional Health.
Monahan said parents should offer fruits and/or vegetables as snacks, and maybe add a dip with the snack. Fruit or vegetables should be a part of every meal, he said.
With enough variety and by modeling good eating habits, children can develop their own healthy habits.
The importance of breakfast
Nearly half of all American families regularly skip breakfast, which could be detrimental to a child’s ability to learn in school.
Breakfast has been associated with better memory, better test scores, better attention span, decreased irritability, healthier body weights and improved overall nutrition, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Monahan said incorporating all the food groups into breakfast is a great way to cover the nutritional bases. Examples include cereal with milk, fruits, granola, granola bars, yogurt, eggs, whole wheat breads and breakfast bars, he said.
Because so many families are hurried in the mornings, it’s important to try to find a way to incorporate a nutritious breakfast into a chaotic morning routine.
Factoring in enough time for children to eat without pressure to hurry up helps ensure kids eat a sufficient meal. One way to do this is to prepare breakfast the night before, such as hard-boiling eggs or putting your child’s favorite cold cereal out the night before to pair with pre-sliced fresh fruit, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
If incorporating more time each morning isn’t an option, have healthy grab-and-go breakfast items handy, such as sliced apples or homemade muffins.
Modeling healthy behaviors, packing healthy lunches
Guidelines for a healthy lunch include whole grains, vegetables, milk, fruits and protein. The USDA suggests trying new foods at home, together as a family, which may lead to children developing a liking for those foods when they appear on a school lunch tray.
Monahan said to avoid including juices, sodas and sweets in school lunches, even though they can be easy options.
The USDA advises parents to talk to children about what’s included in their lunch to make sure they understand why all those foods are important.
For families on a budget who think it’s unrealistic to eat healthier foods, the USDA offers online tools to help families plan ahead and save more money at the grocery store. Visit choosemyplate.gov/budget for tips about saving and low-cost recipes.
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