She doesn’t want pasta. She doesn’t want chicken. Spinach? Not a chance.
My 4-year-old daughter Dina’s eating habits often frustrate me– at least for now. I believe that if she constructed her ideal daily menu it would embody her vision of a perfectly balanced diet: Two pancakes, two pieces of French toast and two waffles. She could probably be the poster child for the American Syrup Association, if it exists.
Just about every day, I wonder about how I can help make sure Dina and her 1-year-old sister Ally eat in a way that’s healthy, fun and even manageable. The challenge is twofold. Not only must my wife Nancy and I try to help our daughters get the nutrition they need; we have to find our way through a staggering amount of information on the subject.
This is serious stuff, and American children–like their parents—are routinely being told to eat better and exercise more. New federal dietary guidelines announced last month reinforce those points.
Specific points for children’s eating habits are:
• Children ages 2-3 should keep total fat intake to 30 to 35 percent of calories, those ages 4-18, between 25 to 35 percent with most fats coming from foods such as fish, nuts and vegetable oils.
• Children should eat more whole-grains.
• Children ages 2-8 should drink two cups of fat-free or low-fat milk daily. Children 9 and older, three cups.
• Children should engage in at least 60 minutes of physical activity on most, preferably all, days of the week.
I contact a couple of nutrition experts, and what I find allays many of my concerns. No, no one tells me I have to feed my kids this or that or they’ll wind up the subject of the next national study on childhood eating habits. No, nobody lectures me that sugar and fat are bad and Brussel sprouts are good (I know better, but I’ll never say that to my daughters).
What they say is that parents should focus on creating a healthy eating environment for children and talk about food in a positive way.
“For the most part, I’d love it if our children never heard the words ‘diet,’ ‘calorie’ and ‘restriction,’” says Joan Carter, a registered dietician and instructor in the department of pediatrics at the Children’s Nutrition Center, Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.
“My goal is for parents to take a deep breath. Take the diet books out of the house and think about eating healthy.”
Carter adds another key for families that is echoed by many nutrition experts–and hits home for me.
“Parents should decide what’s available–but kids decide what to eat. If your kids are afraid of trying some foods, that’s normal. A lot of times it takes 10 to 20 exposures before they’ll try it or want to eat it. But the final decision about what they put in their mouths must be up to the child.”
I admit, I paid almost no attention to child nutrition before I had kids, and for many years didn’t know that much about adult nutrition, either. Now, paying close attention to who’s eating what is an integral part of daily life in our household. And, yes, so is meeting the nutritional needs of a 4-year-old who now knows a few dozen ways to say “No.”
Along the way, we cross the food battle lines just about every day. On one side, there’s McDonald’s, whose golden arches my daughter recognizes in a nanosecond. On the other, new federal dietary guidelines recommend that a girl of my daughter’s age and activity level eat a total of seven or eight servings of fruits and vegetables a day.
Wait a minute. My wife and I limit our daughter’s visits to fast food restaurants and I’m far more likely to recommend the eye-opening, muckraking book Fast Food Nation to a friend than buy french fries at McDonald’s. Still, I’d like to know–are there really any 4-year-olds out there who eat seven or eight servings of fruits and vegetables a day?
I sense that my family is happiest and healthiest when we pay close attention to the running debate over nutrition but don’t get too carried away with it. I’ve started to check out a couple of easy-to-use sources for tips: the Tufts Nutrition Navigator (www.navigator.tufts.edu) and www.kidsnutrition.org, which Carter writes for. Both sites provide a wide range of links to other Web sites.
On one level, encouraging positive nutrition habits in our children, though, is not just about what my wife Nancy and I learn, but how our own habits and actions impact our children. For me, that means crafting a sensible personal health plan that is influenced by many sources but is ultimately my own. I’m not about to go on the Atkins diet, but I think federal dietary guidelines suggesting I may need as many as 13 servings from the grains food group every day may be excessive—at least for me.
Meanwhile, one experienced source on child nutrition provides a valuable perspective on my family’s food dilemma: how to react when a young child blows raspberries at the sight of most foods—including raspberries.
“In most cases, unless a child is undernourished, I would just make sure she is not missing food groups and that her growth is OK,” says Dr. Rebecca Unger, a pediatrician at the Nutrition Evaluation Clinic at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago. “You might give her a multivitamin, but otherwise just make sure there are regular meals and regular snacks.”
This is good to hear, since my daughter, oddly enough, has about as much energy as your average marching band and our family doctor says we shouldn’t be overly concerned about her picky eating habits.
Still, I’m watching her closely. Suddenly, right in front of me, there’s breaking news: Dina stares at a serving of sautéed spinach, a food I didn’t try until I was in my 30’s. She is intrigued. Maybe she’ll even want a bite.
No, not this time, her eyes tell me. And yet, I’m hopeful. For the first time ever, my daughter sees a green and leafy vegetable without blowing raspberries.
Dan Baron is an Evanston writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org