No matter the age of their child, it seems parents have worry engrained in them.
They worry about whether their children are sleeping enough or too much.
They worry about whether they’ve been spending enough time with their children or whether they’ve been doing enough to promote independent play.
They worry about whether that sneeze was just something in the air or whether they need to call the doctor.
In addition to these worries, one of the most common and pervasive ones is whether their child is eating enough nutrient-dense foods.
From the moment parents introduce solid foods to children, plenty of thought and research goes into what foods to serve and how to serve them so their child finds them appetizing and, yes, even fun. If the all-too-common picky eating stage arises, they likely worry about how their child will thrive eating only a handful of foods.
While every child is unique (which is what makes them so special!), there are some great research-based and expert-developed strategies for introducing nutrient-dense foods to children of all ages and making them stick as part of their diet.
This article suggests eleven strategies for introducing nutrient-dense foods and encouraging healthy eating habits in babies, children, and teens.
Setting the Stage for Healthy Eating Habits During the Complementary Feeding Stage (6-12 months)
Complementary feeding is the stage where babies begin to eat solid food after thriving on breastmilk, formula, or a combination of both. It sets the stage for openness to trying new foods and making balanced choices later in life.
The World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend beginning this stage around six months of age. Before six months, babies should only consume breastmilk or specialized baby formula on demand.
Note that these guidelines have been updated; until a few years ago, it was recommended that babies begin eating solid foods as early as four months, but research shows that premature introduction of solid foods in babies is associated with allergies, gastrointestinal problems, choking, and a range of other problems.
So, once babies are developmentally ready to try new foods, which foods should you choose? Here are three strategies for introducing nutrient-dense foods to babies.
Continue to offer breastmilk or formula first.
This may seem contradictory, but until babies turn about one year old, most of their nutrition will continue to come from breastmilk or formula. Parents can feel peace of mind knowing their children are getting plenty of nutrition while exploring a range of foods for the first time.
Consider implementing Baby-Led Weaning.
Baby-Led Weaning (BLW) is a strategy that introduces a wide range of foods to babies in their natural form (yes, including solids!) without the intervention of caretakers. It is an alternative to spoon-feeding, where parents prepare the foods for children in a safe presentation, encouraging self-feeding, exploration, and autonomy. Most foods can be introduced safely from the very start, and research shows it can help to prevent picky eating, honor inborn abilities, allow for self-paced feeding, promote skill development, avoid nutrient gaps, and even reduce the risk of obesity. If BLW is new to you or the caretaker you are working with, no need to worry! There is a wealth of BLW resources online that can help to answer your questions.
Skip the rice and wheat cereal, and choose vegetables, fruits, and legumes instead.
Bland grain-based cereals are common first foods for babies. While these can be added to the mix when babies start eating a variety of foods, these cereals are generally nutrient-poor. They are composed mostly of carbohydrates and, unless they are fortified, they contain little of the nutrients babies need to start complementing their nutrition at this age, including iron, vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin C, and zinc.
When babies start eating solid foods, they may not ingest more than a handful of tablespoons of food a day, so every bit counts. Instead, choose foods dense in micronutrients, like fruits, vegetables, avocados, and legumes.
If you choose to spoon-feed, these vegetables can be steamed and pureed. Avoid boiling them since boiling reduces the nutrient density of the food, either through seeping into the water, as can be the case with iron, or through destroying heat-sensitive nutrients like vitamin C. Most fruits can be mashed with a fork or pureed without cooking them.
For families using the BLW method, you can steam vegetables until soft and cut them in a way so that babies can easily grasp them. Regardless of the method you choose, remember always to watch your child when they are eating.
Do not add salt or sugar to foods.
As adults, savory foods without salt or sweet foods without sugar taste bland to us. To babies being introduced to foods, all tastes are exciting and new to them. While humans are susceptible to getting accustomed to the taste of added sugar and salt, babies, whose brains are developing extremely fast, are more susceptible to the impact of these tastes, which makes them more likely to seek out high-sodium foods and those high in added sugar in the future. Additionally, too much salt and sugar could be dangerous for small children whose kidneys are still developing.
In fact, the AAP recommends that children do not consume sweets or foods with added sugar before the age of two, and salt be avoided before the age of one or longer if possible. This will help to pave the way for healthy eating habits later in life.
Strategies for Introducing Nutrient-Dense Foods to Children
During the toddler years, children learn and develop incredibly fast. Nutrient-dense foods are needed to keep up with that growth and development. In general, it is recommended that children continue to drink breastmilk or formula until at least two years of age, but after a year, most of their nutrition should come from foods.
They will quickly let you know of their likes and dislikes, have tantrums if you cut the banana in the “wrong” way, and waver between eating everything in sight to thriving on only a few bites of food a day.
Children beyond the toddler years are much more independent and have a relatively solid sense of self, which often comes with a very specific list of foods they like and don’t like, with little wiggle room for trying new things. Picky eating is common during this stage, which can cause stress and anxiety in parents and caretakers.
Here are some strategies that can help to introduce nutrient-dense foods to children.
Prioritize food exposure.
One mistake many parents make is not offering a certain food to their children after they claimed not liking it once. When serving their food, you can give them enough of a food you know they will eat and will satisfy their hunger, but also offer a small piece of a new food or food they’ve claimed they don’t like.
Food exposure also includes picking, touching, and tasting the food, even if they refuse to see it on their plate. They can help you break off the broccoli heads and put them in the pot, pour the sauce into a bowl, or feed it to their stuffed animal.
With enough exposure, the fear and yuck factor diminishes, and eventually, they may even try it unprompted!
Allow children to pick out food at the store.
Involving your children in the process of food selection is an effective strategy for helping them get excited about new foods. Take them to the grocery store or farmer’s market and let them pick the fruit and vegetables for the next meal, the type of pasta they want to eat, and a new type of legume. Ask them what they would like to eat it with and whether they want to help you in the kitchen.
When children feel involved in the food selection process, they are more likely to try the final product. They feel pride in having the family eat something they chose and had a hand in preparing.
Encourage having fun with food.
Parents might have to throw their “don’t play with your food” motto out the window for this one. While we aren’t talking about food fights here, allowing children to touch, poke, stack, mix, and play with their food can encourage children to try a variety of foods.
Cutting foods into shapes or using utensils with beloved characters can also make mealtime more fun.
Dips can be a great addition to meals to help kids try new nutrient-dense foods. Ranch dressing for vegetable sticks, peanut butter for fruit, guacamole for chips, and cheese sauce for broccoli are all nutrient-rich dips that encourage eating nutrient-rich foods.
Have regular meal and snack times but do not pressure them to eat.
Most parents feel an impulse to pressure young children to eat, even when they are not in the least bit interested in eating at the time.
One tried and true strategy promoted by pediatric dietitians and nutritionists is to keep a regular meal and snack schedule when food is offered. Aim for most meals or snacks to include a fruit or vegetable, a healthy fat, a protein-rich food, and a whole grain. When your child sits down to eat, they choose what to eat from the plate and how much. When they say they’re done, ask if their tummy feels full, and if they confirm, allow them to get on with their activities. Sometimes, they may eat just a few bites of the peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a carrot, or nothing at all.
You will have peace of mind knowing that the next opportunity for your child to eat is just a few hours away, where they may select another type of food or surprise you by gobbling up everything on the plate.
Research shows that forcing or pressuring children to eat when they are not hungry can cause them to overeat while also relating mealtimes to stress and big emotions. They may also learn that they impact their caretaker’s emotions by choosing whether or not to eat food. Allowing children to choose how much to eat encourages self-regulation and tuning into hunger and fullness cues. They are the only ones who know how their body feels.
Strategies for Encouraging Teens to Eat Nutrient-Dense Foods
Many of the same strategies used in the toddler and childhood years can continue to be effective in the teen years. Exposure to new foods, involving them in the food selection and preparation process, and not pressuring them to eat are all strategies you can continue to implement as your child grows older.
At the same time, it is clear that your teen feels significantly more autonomy with food choices, and if they don’t like the meal, they might feel free to scour the pantry or take a walk to the nearest sandwich shop to get their fill. During this stage, strategies to promote healthy eating can be more complex, especially since teens are susceptible to poor body image, peer pressure, and diet culture, which can cultivate disordered eating behaviors and eating disorders.
The strategies at this stage focus on helping your teen build a positive relationship with food and understanding what their body needs to thrive.
Do not talk about their body or weight.
No matter the teen’s weight or body type, avoid talking about the way their body looks or their weight. Parents have a strong influence on their children’s self-esteem, and teens, who are already susceptible to poor body image around the start of puberty, may tie their body image to their self-worth.
Do not talk about your teen’s body beyond how it functions. Even if the comment is meant to be a compliment (“Wow! Those new jeans make your legs look so slim!), it reinforces ideas that how their body looks is tied to their beauty or worthiness. Additionally, parents often have a misperception of their child’s bodyweight. Since food and diet are perceived as being directly tied to bodyweight and shape, they may start to eliminate nutritious foods from their diet and even fear certain foods.
This strategy also means that you must be prepared to talk to family members and friends about not commenting on your teen’s body as well.
Be an example.
While it may seem that teens want nothing to do with their parents, they are watching and learning from what you do. Do the best you can to improve your personal relationship with food and your body. This might include:
- Avoid talking poorly about your own body or bodyweight
- Avoid using words that reflect guilt after eating certain foods
- Eat when you are hungry
- Eat a variety of foods during each meal
- Be open to trying new foods, and invite your child to do the same
- Talk about foods neutrally, focusing on their taste and the nutrients they provide
- Enjoy cultural foods and foods you bond over as a family
Your teens are watching and learning from you, even if you don’t think they are.
Keep a variety of nutrient-dense snacks readily accessible.
Parents of teens know that three square meals a day are not enough to keep their teens satisfied. Snacking two to three times a day is normal in many teens, and it doesn’t necessarily keep them from eating meals.
Stock up on fruit, prepped vegetables, nuts, and minimally processed and nutrient-dense snacks. Keep these on the counter, at the front of the fridge, or at eye-level in the pantry. If your teen asks for chips, candies, and other fun, nutrient-poor snacks, try to avoid making a big deal out of it. Severely restricting these foods could lead to bingeing or secretive eating behaviors.
When possible, share snack time together, finding a balance between enjoying nutrient-rich snacks and fun snacks and not snacking too close to meals.
From the moment children are born to when they go off and start an independent life, many parents spend a great deal of time worrying and thinking about their children’s nutrition and eating habits.
Setting the stage for good nutrition begins even before they taste their first solid food. Timing food introduction and feeling confident in the nutrition breastmilk or formula provides to young babies is the first thing parents can do to support healthy eating habits later on. Next, exposing babies to nutrient-rich foods from the very beginning, allowing them to explore different textures and tastes of foods in their natural state, opens the world of foods up to children.
Encouraging food exploration without pressure or guilt about what or how much the child eats helps children build healthy relationships with food. As children become adolescents, caretakers can help to create a safe space to eat foods that are satisfying while encouraging a positive body image.
At the end of the day, the caretaker’s job is to make nutrient-rich foods readily available and create an environment that encourages self-regulation, positive self-image, and a positive relationship with food. The child’s job is to tune into their hunger and fullness cues, express needs, and decide how much food is enough.