Common Nutrition Mistakes Smart Parents Make

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Even the most well-meaning parents make mistakes when it comes to feeding their kids. And that’s not surprising, considering everyone’s busy schedules, says Carly Léon, a clinical dietitian specialist at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin in Milwaukee.

“One of reasons that it’s a big challenge is that we have so much going on. Everybody’s busy,” Léon says. “If you have both parents working, and a number of activities [happening], it’s difficult and more challenging to have healthier foods available.”

Be aware of the most common nutrition mistakes parents make and take action to avoid them.

Too much fast food

It’s a rare parent who doesn’t find herself in the fast-food drive-through at some point. But when the order-taker recognizes your voice, your kids’ diets probably need a tune-up. If your minivan is like your second home, think like a Boy Scout and be prepared. Make “snack packs” by keeping bags of whole grain cereal or dried fruit in the car. Nuts, granola bars and apples are also healthy, portable choices.

Too many liquids, especially sweet ones

Fruit juice is good for your kids, right? Not necessarily. Filling up on calorie-laden beverages — whether soda, sports drinks, fruit punch or even juice drinks — is a common problem among preschoolers and school-aged kids. These drinks typically contain a lot of sugar, which translates into a lot of empty calories. Surprisingly, kids can even drink too much milk. If they fill up on it, they’re less likely to eat other nutritious foods at meals. A school-aged child only needs about 20-24 ounces of milk or calcium-fortified soy milk a day.

Short-order cooking

You want your kids to eat their dinner. But serving their every need may be a mistake.

“Children can sit down and they don’t like what they’re having, so mom gets up to make something else,” Léon says. This discourages them from eating what you’ve prepared — and makes more work for you! Eating what you make helps kids develop their palates and teaches them the basics of good nutrition.

Instead, offer your kids a parent-selected choice. If your daughter doesn’t like veggies, try something like, “We’re going to have a vegetable with dinner because vegetables are healthy and good for our bodies. Would you like carrots or green beans?”

“You don’t want to force or bribe children to eat foods, but active encouragement is a good thing,” Léon says.

Failing to set a good example

Sure, you talk all the time about the need for a healthy breakfast. But if you run out the door and skip your own morning meal, kids will notice.

“Children watch what you do even when you think they’re not,” Léon says. “If you want them to make healthier food choices, you also need to do that. If you want them to develop a taste for and include all the of the food groups, then you need to do that as well.”

Doing it all — yourself

How involved are your kids in choosing, shopping for and preparing meals? If it’s not much, consider a change.

“Not getting your kids involved in food is the number one mistake parents make,” says Sarah Mattison, a registered dietitian and personal trainer. Take your kids to the grocery store; have them pick out a fruit or vegetable they’re interested in and try simple recipes together. Let kids help in the kitchen, even if it means making a mess or taking a little longer.

Think outside the box, too. Instead of frozen or takeout pizza, roll out a pizza crust and top it with tomato sauce, veggies, turkey pepperoni and low-fat mozzarella cheese. Or make chicken nuggets in the oven by dredging chicken breast pieces in whole-wheat breadcrumbs.

Labeling food

We may think of dessert as a treat, but teaching kids to consider food as fuel is an important concept to share, Mattison says. Even from a young age, your children can learn to tune in to their bodies and determine whether they are hungry or satisfied. Not labeling foods as “bad” or “good” will also help kids develop healthy eating habits.

“I think it’s important to focus on inclusion instead of exclusion,” Mattison says. “Focus again on ‘food is fuel’ and ‘what do we need to fuel up for the day’ instead of not trying to eat certain things.”

Teaching your children the basics of good nutrition and helping them implement those basics into their diet will help them grow into healthy, happy adults.  

Kelly James-Enger is a freelance journalist whose two young kids love Oreos, but she makes sure they have strawberries, grapes and bananas to snack on, too.

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