Providing well-balanced and nutritious meals to our children is a priority for all parents. But did you also know that there is a connection between learning and nutrition? Studies suggest that students who receive proper nutrition learn better, have fewer absences from class, and have fewer behavior issues in the classroom. Other reports show that students who eat a nutritious breakfast have better memory and attention span than students who do not eat a nutritious breakfast. The connection between learning and nutrition is clear; so how can we get our kids to eat a healthy diet?
It is clear that in order to perform at their best, children need to have a good night’s sleep and a well-balanced diet. But getting kids to want to eat healthy meal choices can be a challenge. All parents have probably been there at one point or another – the meal time negotiation. It looks something like this:
Parent: “Ok, eat 2 more bites of your vegetables and then you’re done with dinner.”
Child: “Grooooaaaan. Do I have to???”
Parent: “Ok, what about 1 more bite of your veggies and 1 bite of your chicken?”
Child: “But I don’t like them.”
Parent: “Ok, final offer – 1 bite of chicken and finish all of your milk. But you get no dessert!”
Does this sound familiar? While some families are blessed with kids who will eat anything (think “Mikey” from the old Life cereal commercials), most have to deal with a picky eater at least once during childhood.
The benefits of a healthy, well-balanced diet for children are so far reaching; not the least of which is proper cognitive and physical development. But a proper diet also helps to stabilize children’s energy, gives them the ability to focus better in the classroom, and ultimately improves classroom performance and even grades over time. So how can you go from mealtime standoffs to mealtime successes? Here are a few tips from the parental trenches:
It might come as a surprise, but establishing a regular family meal time can improve your children’s appetites. Children crave consistency, in all aspects of their lives. It helps them to establish expectations and predict future outcomes, as well as provides a sense of comfort in the routine.
Make the “good stuff” easy for your kids to get. Even if you don’t want to rid the house of all treats and goodies, it might make sense to at least keep them out of your kids’ immediate reach. Instead, consider making healthy choices like fruits, vegetables, and whole grain snacks easy to grab. Stacking the deck in this way helps improve your child’s chance of selecting a healthy choice over a sugary snack.
Control portion sizes at meal times and try to fill half of your child’s plate with vegetables and fruit. If the options on the plate are healthy and balanced, you can be less concerned about making sure they clean their plate, and more focused on making sure they had enough to fill themselves up.
Limit snacks and beverages, particularly for picky eaters. It’s easy for kids to fill up on snacks and drinks that won’t keep their appetites satisfied for a long period of time. If you limit snacks to 1 or 2 small snacks after school, your kids are more likely to want to eat dinner when it’s served.
Don’t give up on your picky eater. Most picky eating phases have more to do with exerting control over their environment than your children actually having an aversion to food. In fact, a food usually has to be introduced multiple times before a child will willingly eat it. So instead of forcing healthy options like vegetables on your picky eater, try making the experience fun and free of pressure. For example, cut the food into fun shapes. Or invite your child to help you prepare the food so they are more willing to want to try it. Or serve new foods alongside some of your children’s favorite foods to increase acceptance.
These are just a few ideas to help encourage healthy eating habits. As always, do what works best for your family and don’t worry too much about whether or not your kids are eating enough Brussels sprouts. Take heart that your efforts now, no matter how challenging the meal time battles may be, will have long term payoff for your child – in the classroom and beyond!
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