Do you struggle with healthy eating habits for children?
How do we get our kids to eat healthier without a mutiny? Does healthier food cost more? If we occasionally let them eat whatever they want does that make us a bad parent?
It can be hard to get your kids to eat healthily!
I get it! Creating healthy eating habits for children can seem like a thankless job!
What about those kids who crave sweets? Do your kids struggle with weight or self-image issues? Perhaps peer pressure has suddenly turned your once healthy child into a soda-craving moody pre-teen?
If you are a parent you have, or likely will, battle all those questions at some point on the parenting trail. Creating healthy eating habits for children that they won’t hate; things that don’t break the budget and can be found at your local supermarket can sometimes seem impossible.
But fear not, as someone who spent 25 years with the world’s largest natural foods grocery chain, I can tell you that you CAN achieve those goals!
In this post, we’re diving deep into the world of healthy food for kids.
We’ll look at the worst ingredients to avoid for your kid’s health. But I’ll also give you a list of my favorite items that are healthy that my kids also LOVE.
Specifically, we’re looking at healthy eating habits for children, and how to start them or improve them. That way you can rest easier knowing they are getting the proper nutrition they need without the battles at the dinner table.
Why are healthy eating habits for children important?
Healthy eating habits for children are SO important. After all, our kids are still growing. Their bones, immune system, and brains are still developing. What we put in their bodies in terms of food is the equivalent of putting gas in your car. Put garbage into your car instead of high-quality gasoline and your car won’t run well, if at all.
Before we dive into what healthy eating habits for children you should be looking at, let’s dig into some statistics. Don’t just take my word for it.
According to the CDC:
- Sodas and other sugar-sweetened beverages account for 10% of kid’s caloric intake
- Added sugar and solid fats account for 40% of the caloric intake of kids up to age 18
- Since 1999, the number of kids who don’t eat vegetables (other than French fries) has increased by 60%!
- 16% of kids under 18 in the United States are considered overweight or and almost 14% are obese
- Almost 15% of kids do less than 1 hour of physical activity per week
So you can clearly see we have a health crisis in our country with our kids.
What are some healthy eating habits?
In general, kids are eating more, eating less nutritiously and exercising less. Compared to when I was a kid it’s a different world. Back then, playing outside was the norm. Today we sit in front of screens (TV, tablets, laptops or gaming devices) and eat chips while moving as physically little as possible.
Of course how your kids spend their time and setting limits on technology are all great things for you to keep under your parenting hat. But healthy eating habits for kids needs to be high on the list too.
What is a healthy balanced diet for kids?
In our house not only do we battle all of the above, but we also battle our kids coming home complaining about:
“why can’t I have Little Debbie cakes with lunch every day?” or
“why can’t I drink Coca-Cola every day at lunch?”
The list goes on and on, but peer pressure and that feeling of not being cool compared to your friends is a huge part of the battle.
— Greg Neely (@GregNeely4) April 21, 2017
Luckily you are a great parent. You understand you are here to mold, guide, inform, protect and parent your child; not just be their friend or the “cool” parent.
Focusing on healthy eating habits for children doesn’t mean any fun at all. The key is a balanced diet that includes healthy fats, low sugars, fiber, lean protein and lots of veggies. And yes; the occasional special treat is just fine.
But eat 1 Little Debbie cupcake at school lunch each day? According to Foodfacts.com . . .
In 1 year, assuming they only eat that Little Debbie while school is in session, and they will consume:
- 280 grams of fat (all of which is saturated)
- 4,200 grams of cholesterol
- 23,800 mg of sodium
- 3,080 grams of sugar (about 208 tablespoons)
I could go on and on, but you get the point. And we’re talking 1 item that is a small part of your kid’s lunch; far from the entirety of what they will be eating!
Thus creating healthy eating habits for children that your kids will like is CRUCIAL!
How do you encourage your child to eat healthily?
The key to creating healthy eating habits for children is balance. You can’t go to one extreme or the other.
Do healthy eating habits for kids mean no treats ever? Absolutely not!
Don’t completely deprive your child of anything within reason. They will be more apt to binge when they can, as well as hide it from you or lie about it. The trick is to know the difference between a special treat on special occasions and just filling our kids with unhealthy empty calories.
In my house we love Halloween. We always trick or treat. When we come home with overflowing baskets of candy do I make my kids throw it out? NO! But I also don’t let them sit there on the couch for an hour eating as much as they want.
They get a reasonable amount and then we put it away and dole it out in small doses. Our daughters may not love it now, but when they are 30 and not overweight or on diabetes medication they will thank us. Thus healthy eating habits for children can include the occasional indulgence.
If I made them throw their Halloween candy out, they’d be more apt to hide it when we aren’t looking, only to binge on it later when they think they can get away with it. Keep your kids safe from harm, but that doesn’t mean extinguishing all the fun of being a kid.
Parenting styles and healthy eating habits for kids
Eating healthy, exercising and living well doesn’t have to be at odds with having fun, living it up or treating ourselves. We just have to be sensible about it. We have to remember that we are the parents and that other parents may parent differently. That should not prevent us from parenting how we want to and doing what’s right for our kids.
If you struggle with trying to figure out what’s best for your kids, it’s crucial that we identify our parenting style. Then, and only then, can we begin to navigate around the 3 Worst Parenting Styles You Should Avoid at All Costs. If you haven’t previously read my post on that, I highly recommend you take a moment and check it out before continuing on here.
— Mary T Smith (@MTSAssoc) April 19, 2017
What are the best healthy eating habits for kids on a budget?
Eating healthy is something you can do on almost any budget! Molding healthy eating habits for children doesn’t have to break the bank. You just have to be sensible, shop carefully and read those labels!
In our house, we have a weekly budget for the 4 of us at $140. I do most of the shopping and a shop at the best store near our house which is a fairly mainstream grocery chain.
I get lots of healthy options for breakfast, lunch, and dinner; organics, non-GMO, fresh produce and no items containing the worst offenders I list below. If times were really tight and we cut out some of the frills, I know we could cut our grocery budget by almost half. In fact going back only 6 or so years ago when my wife did more of the shopping, that was our weekly budget.
Of course, there’s no substitute for fresh food right off the farm, but you do have considerations regarding organic vs. non-organic. In our house, it’s pretty simple. If an organic item is within 20% of the conventional item, we buy organic. If it’s not, chances are we’ll move on to another item.
Check out this great video if you’re confused by organics or unsure what are the best items to buy organically. She also goes over what non-organic produce you’re safe buying and eating!
My top tips for healthy eating habits for children?
- Seek out your grocer’s private label items. Chances are they have an organic line that is both healthy and rock bottom in price. We buy private label organic beans, sauces, tomatoes, chips, crackers and much more!
- Look for well known national brands that you can count on for both great flavor and good ingredients. I like Annies Homegrown & Cascadian Farms, among many others. While it is true that many of the natural foods brands I grew up with in my former career are now owned by large food conglomerates, I still feel like companies should be judged on the basis of their food and ingredients and not investors and parent companies.
- Look for foods that bear the Non-GMO Project label. I could write a whole other blog post on GMO’s but that’s not the focus of my blog and this post is about healthy eating habits for children. Suffice to say, I’m not a fan of genetically modified foods and good chunks of the world outside the US agree with me on that. Consumer Reports takes a nice impartial look at the controversy and it’s worth taking a look.
Check out my list at the bottom of the post for more specific items that are great for kids and kind to your grocery budget!
What are the worst foods for our kids we should limit or avoid?
— Deakin University (@Deakin) May 1, 2017
For me, it doesn’t come down to items or brands as much as ingredients. If you shop at a Whole Foods or Trader Joes you’ll likely be in fairly good shape. But if not, it’s crucial to read and understand ingredient labels.
I’m not taking esoteric things as much as basics. Want to instill healthy eating habits for children? Start by strictly avoiding what I believe are the worst things put into food:
- According to the National Institutes of Health, a recent study shows that consumption of artificial sweeteners (such as NutraSweet found in Diet Coke among many other things) “was associated with escalating abdominal obesity, a potential pathway for cardiometabolic risk “.
- Harvard University went on to find that those who “drank artificially sweetened drinks had a 47% higher increase in BMI (body mass index) than those who did not”
- Hydrogenated oils, sometimes called partially hydrogenated or trans fats are, according to the Mayo Clinic, “the worst type of fat you can eat”. This type of fat is used both because it’s cheap and also because of its long shelf life.
- The Mayo Clinic goes on to say: “A diet laden with trans fat increases your risk of heart disease, the leading killer of men and women.”
High fructose corn syrup
- Princeton University recently conducted a study on high-fructose corn syrup and found conclusive evidence that “In addition to causing significant weight gain . . . , long-term consumption of high-fructose corn syrup also led to abnormal increases in body fat, . . . and a rise in . . . triglycerides” (a key part of your cholesterol measurements).
- Since the introduction of HFCS to the American diet in the 1970s, obesity rates have gone from about 15% to over 33%! While trans fats wouldn’t be the only cause in that huge increase, it no doubt plays a large role given how prevalent this cheap sweetener is in our food supply.
- At one time, our country had over 80 approved artificial colors. Today, thanks to legislation and careful study that dates back to 1908, only 7 colors remain classified as what the FDA calls “generally regarded as safe”. Many of the ones that have been banned in recent decades showed a clear correlation to causing cancer. A number of the colors still allowed in the US are banned in many European countries.
- England’s University of Southampton conducted an extensive study on the correlation between the consumption of artificial colors (such as what you regularly find in mac n’ cheese, breakfast cereals, MnM’s or snacks like Cheetos) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. They found conclusively that consumption of artificial colors led to “a significant increase in ADHD-type behavior, including impulsive behavior and loss of concentration”. They went on to find that those who “suffer from ADHD . . . could be reduced by 30 percent if additives were banned.”
- I wrote an earlier piece that addressed ADD & ADHD and how physical play and limits on technology could actually improve symptoms. Combined with watching what our kids eat there’s not a doubt in my mind that we could definitely significantly impact the occurrence of this epidemic. Check that piece out if you haven’t already at 7 Best Ways of Treating ADHD Naturally for Your Kids.
If you want to know some of the worst store-bought food items out there, check out this list courtesy of NBC called the 20 Worst Kid’s Foods in America.
On that list, for instance, you’ll see that 1 cup of Captain Crunch cereal has a whopping 16 grams of sugar. Auntie Anne’s Pepperoni Pretzel Pocket comes loaded with a staggering 1,120 mg of sodium.
Even worse? Ruby Tuesday Kids Turkey Minis & Fries contains an amazing 46 grams of fat and almost 900 calories. That’s a huge amount for an adult, but this is actually geared towards kids!
So what are my . . .
9 Best Healthy Eating Habits For Children They Will Love?
1. STONEYFIELD ORGANIC YOGURT TUBES
A quick, easy snack. Stick them in the freeze when you buy them.
Then when getting kid’s lunches ready in the morning, just put them in the lunchboxes. They’ll be nice and thawed by lunchtime. Even if they’re not, what kid doesn’t love frozen yogurt?
Made from organic milk that has no added growth hormones unlike much of the dairy products out there.
2. PEANUT BUTTER & JELLY
PBnJ is a staple for most kids.
You know what are staple ingredients in most peanut butter and jelly? Hydrogenated oils, sugar, salt and maybe even some artificial color in the jelly. The average store-bought peanut butter and jelly see peanuts and fruit way down on the ingredient list. You know what makes good peanut butter? PEANUTS! You know what makes good jam or jelly? Fruit!
Look for peanut butter with no added sugar or oil minimally.
Look for jelly that has no corn syrup, sugar, oil or food coloring. Fruit is plenty sweet enough and should have plenty of color all on its own. These can be tough to find amidst a sea of junk.
I like to grind my own peanut butter which more and more stores offer. This way all you get is peanuts and maybe some salt! For jelly, even some of the organic ones put a lot of sugar in, so I like the Polaner All fruit spreadables which are also non-GMO.
Just make sure to avoid their ones sweetened with Splenda.
3. KRAFT ORGANIC MAC N CHEESE
OK, we ate Annie’s Mac n Cheese for years.
We also avoided Kraft like the plague since it was a lot of yellow food coloring. But these days you can find good ‘ole Kraft with organic pasta, no artificial ingredients and no-growth hormone cheese for a lot less than Annie’s.
I’ll always love Annie’s (owned by General Mills these days) but this is the one in our pantry.
4. FROZEN ORGANIC VEGGIES
There’s no substitute for fresh off the farm fruits and veggies.
But for many of us working Middle Class Dads and Moms, that’s just not the reality we live in. According to WebMD, frozen veggies have the same or superior nutritional content to their fresh counterparts. And they are cheap & store easily for long periods of time. They also make it incredibly easy to add veggies to any meal.
Most grocers have organic private label frozen veggies making a good deal even better.
5. ORGANIC NO SUGAR ADDED 100% JUICE BOXES
In our house, we don’t put juice boxes in with lunches; it’s just a lot of sugar even if it is all derived from fruit.
But it is better than soda, so whether for lunches, birthday parties or other special occasions, seek out juice boxes that are made from organic fruits that have no sugar added. Most often these will say 100% juice, but ones like Honest Kids do water them down a bit without added any fillers or sweeteners.
The net result is it actually reduces the amount of sugar per serving which is a good thing!
6. DOLE NON-GMO FRUIT CUPS PACKED IN WATER
It’s not organic and I wish it was. But for a quick snack that won’t break the bank that is still fairly healthy, these fit the bill. Packed in water (or 100% juice) and made from non-GMO fruits, these work for any budget.
7. KASHI NON-GMO GRANOLA BARS
OK, so I know if I keep touting brands like this one (owned by Kellogg’s) the purists out there will be up in arms.
But as I’ve said. I’m here to help you find healthy, affordable foods your kids will eat. The food soapbox is best left to others. I like Kashi bars as they are affordable and all are non-GMO and they have a savory line with very low sugar.
8. ORGANIC WHOLE GRAIN BREAD (made without azodicarbonamide)
Sandwiches are a staple item in kid’s lunchboxes across the globe. Unfortunately, you know what else is a staple in the bread that gets used? A laundry list of ugly ingredients like bleached flour, high fructose corn syrup and the dreaded azodicarbonamide, a key component in yoga mats (Mmmm . . . delicious!)
Ideally look for organic bread as it will skip all that junk. Minimally look for ones avoiding the big three I name above: bleached flour, high fructose corn syrup, and azodicarbonamide.
9. ORGANIC MILK OR SILK NON-GMO NON-DAIRY MILKS
Personally, I don’t drink milk and haven’t in decades.
But my kids and wife like milk in their cereal. Thus we only buy organic milk. Milk that’s organic will be, by definition, free of any added growth hormones.
In our house, we like to completely avoid foods with added growth hormones (most common in milk products and chicken). According to renowned health expert Dr. Andrew Weill, added growth hormones “can increase the risk of breast cancer and other reproductive system cancers among women and may promote development of prostate cancer in men.”
For my coffee and any baking I do, I prefer Silk non-GMO unsweetened almond or coconut milk. They taste great, are inexpensive and in my mind a much healthier alternative.
Notice I’m not going uber-militant here.
I’m not speaking in absolutes (they must eat vegan or they must only eat organic). I’m trying to be realistic and budget friendly. I also want you to buy things that your kids will actually eat without putting up a fight.
If you want to go stricter, all organic or vegan, go for it.
But for me and my family, these things are healthy staples that beat the pants off a lot of what I see in the school cafeteria at lunchtime. And they work for our budget and my kids love them.
And most importantly, they are healthy eating habits for children I know my kids love and will stick to even into adulthood.
There are also experts out there more knowledgeable than me. If you want to really dive deep, check out my friend Nina’s site over at GoodFoodFighter! Nina has a wealth of knowledge and is a food force to be reckoned with!
In this post, we took an in-depth look into the world of food, good health, eating habits and how those things affect our kids.
I spent over 20 years in leadership positions with Whole Foods Market, so I know a thing or 2 about healthy eating. With 3 daughters, I also know a few things about healthy food for kids and some of the challenges that come up.
Specifically, today, we looked at healthy eating habits for children and some specific product recommendations. That way you can rest easier knowing your kids are eating healthier BUT without the struggles and push back at the dinner table.
What is your biggest healthy food for kids challenge?
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