Want to help your second-grader eat healthy? Here are some tips that experts suggest.
Make mealtime free of distractions to allow your child to focus on eating. This means no TV, smartphones, or other gadgets during meals. This is a great time to connect as a family and keeping distractions at bay trains them to listen to their body, focus on what they're eating, when they're full, and when they'd like more.
Try sticking 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 second-grader is shopping with you, avoiding these aisles altogether will keep them from seeing these items – and trying to convince you to add them to the cart.
Have a family pizza night and make your own pies. Your second-grader probably loves pizza, which doesn’t always have to be junk food. Let your second-grader participate in putting their toppings on. Start with whole wheat dough, low sodium tomato sauce, different kinds of vegetables, and low-fat cheese. It’s a healthy and fun way to get a range of food groups.
Make sure healthier options are easier to reach and at eye-level, and treats are out of sight. Second-graders have more independence around the kitchen at this age, meaning they will grab snacks from the fridge or cupboard on their own. If the only foods your child finds are healthy, making a healthy choice is easier.
Let your child decide what goes into a salad. This increases their participation in healthy choices and shows them that their opinion on what your child eats matters.
Be creative with how you present food to your second-grader. They are likely to be more adventurous at this age than they were before and presenting healthy options in new ways can lead him to try new foods. Tired of a side salad at dinner? Try making a taco salad as a main dish and let your child decide what goes into his. Grilled chicken breast strips, black beans, corn, peppers, avocado, tomatoes, romaine lettuce, brown rice, and low-fat cheese are all good options to include. Instead of a higher-fat salad dressing, try using salsa for a flavorful and healthier option.
All hands on deck
Have your second-grader run the buttons on the blender as you make smoothies. At this age, they can help out more in the kitchen. Getting them involved in the process will get him more invested and interested in the food he’ll be eating.
Food field trips
Take your child grocery shopping with you and get them involved in bagging and weighing produce. Some stores even have scanners that kids can use.
Offer a side of carrots, sweet potato, or green beans and let your child choose which one they would like to have for dinner. This will support their independence and also encourage them to choose vegetables on their own.
Pasta & veggies
Try adding more vegetables to spaghetti to increase vegetable consumption. Adding peppers, mushrooms, or chopped broccoli to the sauce is one option. Another is using a vegetable peeler to turn zucchini into “noodles” by thinly slicing the zucchini and either adding to spaghetti noodles or using just the zucchini as the pasta.
Try having a “veggie night” once a week. Serve veggie dogs or veggie burgers, hummus with cut vegetables like carrots and cucumbers, and baked sweet potato fries. Committing to one night a week will challenge both you and your child to try vegetables in different ways and see them as more than just a side dish.
Cut-up & bag
Keep cut-up fruit in single serve bags in the refrigerator at eye-level and encourage your child to eat this as a snack. When fruit is readily available and easy to eat it makes your child more likely to choose it.
If it’s an option, take a family trip to a local apple orchard. Let your second-grader pick apples and discuss the different kinds of apples available. When you’re home, you can taste-test the apples and see which ones you all like best. You’ll not only get to promote healthy eating, the outing makes good family time and also gets you all moving.
Focus on fruit as dessert. The natural sweetness in fruits provides a great way to end the meal with a dessert feel without dipping into the cookie jar or adding empty calories.
Cherry on top
Top your second-graders cereal or oatmeal with fresh berries, bananas, or chopped apple to get a serving of fruit in with breakfast.
Try freezing berries, orange segments, or grapes for a healthy take on homemade popsicle. Sliced bananas topped with a little orange juice and frozen in a paper cup are another option.
Try to serve whole grain items with low sugar content for breakfast. Whole grains help your child to feel full longer, making whole grains a great option for breakfast.
The fine print
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.
Mixing it up
Incorporate whole grains slowly if your child isn’t used to them. Try mixing whole wheat pasta with white pasta and gradually adding more wheat pasta over time until your child gets used to the texture and taste. This works with rice too, and also helps parents who might need to get used to the whole wheat pasta versions.
Try using oats more. Oats are a great source of whole grain and are very versatile. They can be added to breads, muffins, and cookies. Combined with yogurt for parfaits or used to make homemade granola, oats are a great way to add in whole grains to your child’s diet.
If peanut allergies are a concern at school, pack your child a sandwich made with sun butter instead of peanut butter. Sun butter is made from sunflower seeds and is safe for sufferers of tree-nut allergies. You could also try almond butter or pumpkin seed butter as substitutes for peanut butter.
Swap out regular yogurt with low-fat Greek yogurt, which has more protein than its counterpart. Greek yogurt is a little tarter than regular yogurt and can be sweetened with fruit or a little honey.
Edamame, or immature soybeans, in their shell can be a fun and healthy snack or appetizer. Teach your child to get the beans out of their pods and enjoy.
Hard boiled eggs
Try hard-boiling eggs ahead of time to save time in the morning. Hard boiled eggs make an easy grab-and-go breakfast item. Add a banana, and a piece of whole-grain toast and you can still provide a healthy breakfast even if your second-grader doesn’t have time to sit down and eat.
If your child has a diagnosis of 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 it is not absorbed as well as the calcium in dairy foods.
Stock up on low-fat string cheese. Easily packable, low-fat string cheese makes a good snack for kids who are on the go. String cheese is also good for packed lunches.
Use milk instead of water when preparing hot cereals, oatmeal, and soups. This is an easy way to increase your child’s dairy intake without pouring them a glass of milk.
Try adding some avocado to a smoothie for added creaminess and healthy fats.
If you use margarine, try to buy products in a tub rather than a stick. There is less trans fat in margarine sold in a tub than in stick margarine.
Stay away from harmful trans fat. 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.
Good & bad fats
Check the label on packaged foods for bad fats. 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.
The best way to reduce your child’s salt and sodium intake is to feed them fresh, whole foods and to stay away from processed foods as much as possible.
Read the labels
Read the labels of the foods you’re buying. Since every brand and cook are different, looking for lower sodium options will really help cut back your child’s intake.
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.
Teach your second-grader about moderation. Making a food forbidden may make your child want it more. Instead, focus on eating sweet treats only on special occasions and not every day.
Try using peanut butter or warmed fruit instead of using syrup to top pancakes or waffles. Your child may not even miss the syrup and substituting a serving of protein or fruit for the sugar makes breakfast even healthier.
Add cucumber or mint to water. This will sweeten the flavor of the water and may appeal to your child, who might otherwise not enjoy plain water.
To learn more about nutrition for your child, check out our second 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.