Best Foods for Kids

Amy Hendel | July 12, 2017

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Parents are really challenged when it comes to feeding their kids the healthiest foods. Between fast-paced, stressful days with little shopping or cooking time, ads for unhealthy foods, deceptive food labeling, and finicky eaters, it can be hard to get kids to make good food choices. If you clearly recognize the superstar selections in each food group, use a bit of creativity, and devote time to nutrition, it can be done. First up — juicy fruits.

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The fruit food group

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Feeding your child a variety of fruits ensures that they get a bounty of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and tastes. Berries are especially rich in fiber. Seasonal fruits like watermelon, plums, and cantaloupe are naturally sweet. Apples come in a range of tastes and colors, so try them all. Grill fruits like peaches, pineapples, and tomatoes. Add fruit chunks to salads, muffins, and cereal and use fruit purees instead of oil when baking. Nix processed fruit snacks and juices, which are devoid of fiber and full of sugar.

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The vegetable food group

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Many kids find some vegetables bitter or too savory, or they may not like the look of certain vegetables. The key is to get kids to at least try vegetables, so set a good example. Introduce a variety of vegetables to your child early in life and often, and if they refuse, keep trying. Cut up tiny cubes of cucumbers, cooked squash, and peppers to serve as finger foods. Use dips, sautés, and seasonings to add flavor to vegetables. Play “blind” tasting games with kids. Create home salad bars. Learn which vegetables to cook and which to eat raw for best nutrient absorption.

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The grain group

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Refined carbohydrates — baked goods, cereals, and huge servings of grain dishes are implicated as contributors to our country’s high obesity rates. Starchy vegetables — peas, corn, potatoes — are included in this group and require portion control like all grain foods. Grain superstars include whole grains, high fiber grains, and ancient grains. Grain heavy breakfasts should be limited. Use less cereal and add fruit, nuts, and milk. Serve one pancake with nut butter and fruit. “Dilute” pasta dishes with vegetables.

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The grain group — part 2

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Avoid sugary cereals, fried potatoes, and refined breads. Use whole grain tortillas instead of white sandwich bread. Choose whole grain pasta or the new protein pastas made from chickpeas. It’s standard to start kids in high chairs with cereals as their first finger foods. Try mixing in soybeans or tiny cubes of firm tofu (marinate and bake to add flavor). Use different flours (whole grain, soy) when baking at home. Kids need to eat grains — choose wisely and measure portions.

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The dairy group

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Calcium and vitamin D fortification are crucial to kid (and teen) bone growth. With numerous new “milk-like” choices, it’s crucial to make sure that you choose milk that is low in saturated fat, has no added sugar, is fortified, and contains a decent amount of protein. Many of the nut milks do not meet these goals so read labels. One-percent and skim (dairy) milk, fortified plain soymilk, pea-based milk (Ripple), and some nut milks are your best choices. If your kid hates milk, add it to a fruit smoothie.

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The dairy group — part 2

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Yogurt buyer, beware. Choose plain, low-fat or fat-free yogurt and “doctor it up” with fruit, nuts, or whole grain, high protein cereal. Read yogurt labels and avoid those with added fruit or sugar. Greek yogurt is typically higher in protein. Hard cheese is fine as long as you limit serving size and try to buy part-skim or low-fat versions some of the time. Jazz up a whole grain pancake or waffle with cottage cheese, cinnamon, and nuts. Mix yogurt into baked goods to boost calcium and protein. Milk fluffs up an omelet.

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The protein group

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Kids can get plenty of iron without regularly eating red meat. Skinless poultry is a good protein source— just don’t fry it. Fish, full of omega 3 fatty acids should be introduced to kids — try bland selections like orange roughy and halibut if salmon and tuna (the light has less mercury) don’t resonate well. Legumes including beans and lentils are excellent sources of protein, fiber, and a host of nutrients. Soybeans can be first finger foods. Eggs offer iron (yolk), vitamins, and minerals.

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The fat group

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If your child’s diet is filled with refined foods, they are likely getting heavy doses of sugar, salt, and unhealthy fats. Unhealthy fats include saturated and trans fats. You do want your child eating small doses of healthy fats, which include monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats. Nuts and nut butters have protein and healthy fats, so does fish. Add small amounts of healthy oils to salads, which will also help to boost absorption of certain vitamins (carotenoids).

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Bars, juice and snacks are not “food groups”

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Parents can be easily lured to refill bottles or sippy cups with juice. Kids don’t need extra liquid calories. Many kid-friendly boxed foods and snacks have health halo terms like “natural” or “fortified,” which can be deceptive. Kids should get protein, fiber, and other crucial nutrients from the superstars we’ve just mentioned — they don’t need granola bars as a regular snack. Give a child salty chips, fried foods, and processed fruit snacks, and they won’t want “real whole foods.”

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Some quick tips

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Shop with your child and teach him or her to decipher nutrition labels. Let them begin to recognize seasonal fruits and vegetables. Talk to the fish counter man and let him be your child’s guide to learning about important proteins. Enjoy cooking with your child so they’ll learn about seasonings and healthy ways to prepare foods. You can make your own muffins, pizza, soups, chili, and frozen smoothie pops. Take the time to teach your child lifelong nutrition and cooking lessons. The bonding time is invaluable!