We caught up with nutrition expert and Registered Dietitian, Jo-Ann Heslin, MA, CDN, RD who has sold over 7 million books on nutrition to hear her take on feeding challenges and raising a healthy family.
What do you think are the top 3 important things to think of when feeding your kids?
Every parent has dealt with difficult dinner behaviors, food jags and mealtime standoffs. Gaining control over when they eat and what they eat is part of the natural separation process in a child’s desire for independence.
What do you advise parents to do with an anti-fruit/vegetable kid?
As children grow and become exposed to different foods, their preferences will change and evolve as well. In the meantime, don’t worry too much. When one food is rejected chances are there is another nutritious food that can be offered instead. Fruits can supply just as much vitamin A and C as vegetables. If your child won’t eat spinach or broccoli, he can be just as well nourished with papaya and watermelon. Try being creative to make eating more fun. If your child rejects cooked vegetables serve raw instead. Offer vegetables with a low fat dip, hummus or even a warm cheese sauce for dunking. Fruits can be served with peanut butter, ricotta cheese, or even drizzled with a small amount of chocolate syrup as a dessert plate. Or use fruits as a meal side instead of vegetables. Applesauce, grilled peaches, lightly stewed strawberries or wedges of melon all make great additions and can be enjoyed by the entire family. You are not only providing options but you are expanding everyone’s eating experience.
Did your children have any fear of specific foods or food struggles?
My first daughter was a very finicky eater, but my second daughter would have eaten a tablecloth! I’ve found that children have control of three things, going pee in their pants, if they go to bed on time, and what they eat. I’ve learned that all children are universal; I had to apply strategies that I was giving others like choosing raw veggies if they didn’t like them cooked. We had “universal substitutes” that didn’t require extra cooking. If the girls didn’t want the protein we were serving like chicken for dinner I allowed them to choose peanut butter instead. I did bizarre things like putting a bowl of popcorn on the table instead of potatoes! Some days I would offer all fruits instead of vegetables. I was always throwing them for a loop, trying to give them the idea that all foods are good foods. Growing up, my mom always made my sister and I leave the house with breakfast. We would challenge her by asking for crazy things for breakfast, and she always gave us what we wanted! Her rule was that we had to leave the house with food in our stomachs. It was a great lesson for me. We soon stopped running her in circles and let her feed us! Growing up in a non-traditional house has taught me a lot. It has brought back the fun of eating. We’re always focused on health, you have to give in to a degree, give children some of the things they’re looking for.
Now that your children are out of their teenage years, have their healthy eating habits continued?
My girls are now exceptionally good eaters! Exposure has allowed them to be more adventurous, now they eat things they always said were off limits. The lessons I always taught were learned! With healthy eating, parents are making deposits in a bank, but they won’t always see the withdrawals immediately.
What is your favorite child-like kid snack with fruits and vegetables?
I have always told my girls two things: Go out and play and eat an apple. One consistent snack: fruit! We had fresh fruit and dried fruit around at all times, and I always tried to incorporate fruit into food. Because we live on the East Coast and winters are so cold, I had the girls eat fruit in the morning, heating apples and pears with a teaspoon of brown sugar and we called it apple or pear pie! I would have to say I depended on fruit more than anything. Another thing to remember, negotiating is key!
How can parents be more conscious about feeding the right portion to their children?
This is a great opportunity for teaching and modeling. If parents split a main dish portion when eating out, or order a small hamburger you are modeling to your children the correct amount to eat. How many times have we thought to ourselves, “Wow, that bagel is enormous.” Voice that concern to your child and tell them that size is much too large for one person, “Want to split with me?” Order small – smaller portions = a smaller you and is a simple consistent step we can all take to manage weight over the long term.
Parents are the gatekeepers of their children’s diets. It is our job to offer our children the right amount of food. Go with smaller portions whenever possible. Children can always ask for more, but when presented with a large amount of food, it could tempt them to overeat and override the natural feeling of fullness. Never insist a child clean their plate. They should be taught to eat until their belly feels full and respect them to make that decision. I personally like individually wrapped portions and 100-calories packs. They are convenient and teach us what makes up a reasonable portion. Snack size and miniature candy bars, pudding cups, Dixie cups, and small bags of chips all provide a treat in a reasonable portion size.
What is your best secret for managing your weight?
Besides eating well I’m very committed to activity. I try to get 150 minutes of exercise a week as a combination of swimming, dance aerobics and yoga. In addition, I frequently wear a pedometer to see if I get close to 10,000 steps a day. I’m a big fan of what I call ‘everyday fitness’ – putting activity into your day as often as possible – climbing stairs, walking to an appointment instead of taking a bus or subway, gardening, even washing windows. I’d rather move than sit and will often do yoga stretches, walk on a treadmill, or lift free weights when I watch TV. Activity has become such a natural part of my day, I rarely think about incorporating it any longer. And, it has worked because my adult weight has been stable for over 30 years.
When you have grandkids, what do you think your approach to healthy eating will be with them?
I hope that I’d do the same thing that I did with my own children, be a good role model! I used food like a learning laboratory. I taught without preaching. I would put the girl’s highchairs at the kitchen counter and they were the cooks. My husband cooked once a week and I would leave whole wheat Italian bread, pizza sauce, cheese…etc so they could make a pizza. The girls helped prepare dinner and it didn’t always turn out perfectly, but it taught them that eating is fun, a recurring pleasure in life!
Jo-Ann Heslin, MA, CDN, RD is author of the nutrition counter series for Pocket Books including The Healthy Wholefoods Counter, The Cholesterol Counter, 7th ed., The Diabetes Carboydrate and Calorie Counter, 3rd ed., and The Complete Food Counter, 2nd ed. She has been a consultant and nutrition educator for more than 30 years and hosts the website www.TheNutritionExperts.com.
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