A study recently published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that cutting an average of 64 calories per day in children’s diets could reduce obesity rates.
Since I often teach adults that even 100 calories per day can have a significant impact over time, cutting 64 calories seems reasonable for a smaller person. Realistically, 64 calories seems so harmless when you consider how small an amount of food that is, and it is easy to see how these extra calories are sneaking in.
I would never advise restricting the amount of food a young child or toddler can eat. Toddlers, especially, can vary dramatically in the amount of food they choose to eat day to day. I also think young children should be allowed to eat some treats. To never eat treats is unrealistic. They will have complete control over their food choices someday, so it is a good idea to demonstrate moderation while they are young. However, it is very important to offer nutritious choices most of the time.
A couple of the greater-caloric food choices can easily add up to too many calories.
For example, ¾ of a cup of mac and cheese is about 250 calories, but a ½ cup of mac and cheese with four quartered cherry tomatoes or 10 green beans (fresh, frozen or canned without salt added) has about 180 calories. The difference is 70 calories.
Two chocolate sandwich cookies have about 95 calories. One cup of strawberries or a half cup of unsweetened applesauce has about 50 calories each. The difference is 45 calories.
Vegetables and fruits are essential to achieving a balance for young eaters. Each meal or snack should include fruits and vegetables. They regularly contain less calories than the foods taking their place on the plate. These foods have more fiber and are more filling, especially when paired with protein.
Offering young children a variety of colors and textures is important, not only for their long-term health, but because it makes a plate more appealing. It is important that children grow accustomed to variety when they are young and developing. Fruits and vegetables offer so much in the way of color and texture that they easily give visual and textural appeal to a meal. Try cooked and uncooked variations of the same food, and talk about their differences and similarities. Try to get as many colors as you can on a plate, or ask your child how they could get more color in a meal. Smelling foods may get their appetite going and is another way to compare foods.
It’s also important to give kids control. Allowing young children to help in the kitchen is a great experience. A different kind of language is used in cooking, and math and fine-motor skills are also needed in the kitchen. Allowing a child to choose a green vegetable for dinner will make them more likely to eat it. In my opinion, it is also a lot of fun and a great way to spend time with your child while you’re preparing a meal.
Have fun! Though nutrition is important, being relaxed at mealtime is necessary. Your child should see you enjoying healthy foods. Once you have offered healthy choices, do not stress if your child does not always eat them. For some children, many exposures (literally hundreds) to a new food are needed before they are ready to enjoy it. Do not nitpick over their eating, or it is sure to raise more battles. As any parent already knows, toddlers quickly learn how to test their parents. As long as there is something at the table they like, and it is all healthy, they will eat enough.
Make mealtime pleasurable — a time to be together, talk and enjoy a variety of foods.
Jordy Kivett is a nutrition educator at Cornell Cooperative Extension in Clinton County. For more information, contact her at 561-7450.