Want to help your first-grader develop healthy eating habits? Here are some tips from experts.
Be prepared for comments about what other kids are eating at school. Your child will get to see what other parents feed their children in the cafeteria and at snack time. Teach your child you’ve chosen to feed their healthier options, and what is OK for their friend to eat is not necessarily OK for them to eat.
Try to stick to the outer aisles at the grocery store. As a general rule, the healthiest options for your growing child are fresh, whole foods that haven’t been processed. Dairy, fresh produce, and natural foods are usually found in the outer aisles of the store. The middle aisles are filled with snacks, potato chips, cakes, candy, etc. If your child is shopping with you, avoiding these aisles altogether will keep your child from seeing these items – and trying to convince you to add them to the cart.
Have your family members and friends serve as role models for healthy eating. Younger children often idolize older people such as a parent, aunt or uncle, older cousin, or friend. One way to motivate your child to eat better is to say that if your child wants to grow big and strong like their role model, your child needs to eat healthy foods.
Words & nutrition
Try to use words such as strong or weak, fast or slow, or healthy or unhealthy, instead of words like fat, obese, or chunky when talking about nutrition with your child. Try explaining to your child that “eating your vegetables will make you grow up strong,” and “eating too much candy will slow you down and make your body weak.” A sense of body image starts to develop around age 6, and focusing on what the food does to their body will help promote a healthy ideal instead of putting an overemphasis on weight.
Teach your first-grader what a healthy meal and snack is. A fruit and vegetable should be eaten at each meal and one at snack time.
Focus on eating as a family without technology distractions. This means no texting, no TV, no technology. Meals are a great time to connect as a family, and keeping distractions at bay allows your child to learn to listen to their body and know when they are full.
Learning through shopping
First-graders love to help – take advantage of that by asking your child to get involved with picking out vegetables and fruits at the grocery store, helping in meal preparation, and putting the foods on plates. Getting them involved in all steps of the process is great for developing their interest in healthy foods.
Try serving your first-grader veggie burgers and veggie dogs to increase vegetable and protein intake for a picky eater. Delivering vegetables in a food form your child may already be used to is another way to promote the development of vegetable eating, while their taste buds are still forming.
Try adding shredded carrots or zucchini to meatloaf, casseroles or quick breads and muffins. Your child might not even notice the added vegetables.
Ask your child to help tear lettuce for a salad or wash fresh vegetables. Getting your child involved in this way can get them interested in eating the vegetables they’ve helped prepare.
At this young age, your child’s taste buds are extra-sensitive to bitter foods, making leafy greens like spinach and kale a hard sell. If you add a touch of salt to bitter greens, it gives them a less bitter taste. Also try adding ketchup, which may sound unappealing to an adult, but if it gets your child to eat green beans it may be worth it. Your child will get used to the bitter taste over time as long as you continue to offer that particular vegetable.
Try adding spinach to a homemade smoothie. The sweetness of the berries and banana will mask the spinach, ensuring your child gets those leafy greens in a sweeter way. Smoothies are a good way to pack in a lot of fruits in one serving. Add whole bananas, frozen berries, milk, and blend. It’s a treat that tastes like a frozen dessert, but packs a lot of nutrients. Be mindful of portions and serve no more than 6 ounces.
Offer different vegetables repeatedly. Just because your child didn’t like beets two weeks ago, doesn’t mean your child won’t like them today. Children’s tastes are changing all the time and the more they are exposed to a certain kind of food, the more they are likely to develop a taste for it.
Like father, like son
Eat your vegetables, too. At this age your child is likely to copy your behavior. Really emphasize your love for vegetables by saying things like, “I love these green beans. Don’t you? Can I eat yours?” This will get your child’s attention and make their want to have fun as well – leading their to eating more of their vegetables.
Try raw vegetables such as carrot sticks, pea pods, green beans, and celery with a dip like hummus or ranch dressing to make the vegetables more appealing to your child. Limit dips to no more than two tablespoons and try a light or fat-free version.
Give your child dried fruits like raisins or dried apricots as a sweet snack instead of candy. This will satisfy their sweet tooth while also delivering important nutrients. But make sure your child brushes their teeth after eating dried fruits – they can be sticky, just like a candy. And keep an eye on the serving size – ¼ cup is one serving of dried fruit, that’s about one small box of raisins.
Keep sliced fruits in easily accessible containers in the refrigerator for a healthy snack or meal addition. Younger children are more likely to eat fruit if is cut up and easy to eat.
Try whole grain tortillas with melted low-fat cheese for a snack that packs in both grains and dairy.
Add crunch (and grains) to your child’s yogurt by adding whole grain cereal. This gets both grains and dairy into their breakfast. Add some sliced fruit and a few nuts and your child has a complete and healthy breakfast.
Oatmeal is another great option for whole grains at breakfast. Add fruit like bananas and berries, top with almonds and walnuts, and your child will have a filling start to their day with most of the food groups covered.
The fine print
Try to always read the back of a package to check for whole grains. Sometimes the front of the box will say whole grain, but there might not be a lot of whole grains in the pasta, bread, or cereal. Whole grains should be the number one ingredient on the list.
Incorporating whole grains
Try incorporating whole grains slowly if your child isn’t used to them. Try mixing brown rice with white rice and gradually adding more brown rice over time until your child gets used to the texture and taste. This works for pasta too.
Try to make sure your child eats two servings of fish each week. If you serve fish sticks, look for varieties that are breaded with whole grains and low sodium. An even healthier option is to make them at home with baked salmon, tilapia, or flounder.
Try to limit the amount of tuna you serve your child per week to no more than one can of chunk light tuna every seven to nine days, due to the mercury levels in tuna. Chunk light tuna has far less mercury than white albacore tuna. You could also switch to canned salmon, and your child may not know the difference.
Try making eggs in different ways to keep them interesting. They can be scrambled, boiled, or served as an omelet with added vegetables. Eggs are a great source of protein.
If your child has a diagnosed lactose intolerance, milk substitutes such as calcium-fortified soy milk or almond milk are good options. Vegetables like collard greens, kale, and soybeans also provide calcium, though in smaller amounts. However, calcium from these sources is not absorbed as well as the calcium in dairy foods.
Use low-fat milk when preparing hot cereal, oatmeal, or soup. This is an easy way to increase your child’s dairy intake without pouring them a glass of milk.
If your child drinks a lot of milk, try to make sure your child doesn’t fill up on milk and neglect to eat other healthy foods.
Oils & avocado
Try adding small amounts of avocado to a smoothie to increase creaminess and healthy fats.
Oils & trans fats
Stay away from harmful trans fats. If you see the words “partially hydrogenated oil” in the ingredient list this means there is trans fat in the product, even if it says 0 trans fat on the front of the label.
Oils & margarine
Try to buy margarine in a tub rather than a stick. There is less trans fat in margarine sold in a tub than in stick margarine.
Oils & the fine print
Try to check the label to avoid the bad fats in pre-packaged foods. Saturated fats and trans fats fall into the unhealthy fat category. Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats (liquid fats) are better fats, and are found in vegetable and olive oils, avocado, and fatty fish like salmon.
Feed your first-grader fresh, whole foods, and stay away from processed foods as much as possible. This is the best way to keep their sodium intake down.
The fine print
Try to always check the labels of the food you’re buying. Since every brand and cook are different, looking for lower sodium options will really help cut back your child’s intake.
Drain and rinse canned vegetables to reduce the amount of sodium when not buying low-sodium or no salt added versions. Frozen vegetables have less sodium than canned vegetables and are a good option when fresh vegetables aren’t available.
Hide the salt
Don’t leave a salt shaker on the table. If you’d like to have added flavor available, try making your own herb mix to keep on the table. Garlic powder, onion powder, and oregano or thyme are good options to mix together to add flavor without adding sodium.
Most sodium in a child’s diet does not come from the salt shaker but from foods purchased away from home. For example, chicken fingers and pasta dishes are often high in sodium.
Try making your own pizza at home. Pizza parlor pizza is the top source of sodium in a child’s diet.
Try to emphasize with your child that sweet treats are an occasional treat, and not an everyday occurrence. At this age your child may begin to be influenced by their peers who may consume unhealthy snacks like candy and soda.
Limit your child’s screen time to lessen the effect of food ads. Young children are easily influenced by advertisements for junk foods like sugary cereals, soda, and fast food.
Teach your child moderation. If you completely forbid some foods, it may make them more likely to want them.
Focus on fruits as a dessert most nights and avoid ice creams, candies, and pastries except for on special occasions
To learn more about nutrition for your child, check out our first grade nutrition guide page.
Parent Toolkit resources were developed by NBC News Learn with the help of subject-matter experts, including Wanda Koszewski, Associate Professor and Department Chair for Human Nutrition, Winthrop University; Manuel Villacorta, Author, Speaker and Registered Dietitian, Whole Body Reboot; and Dr. Natasha Burgert, Pediatrician, Pediatric Associates.