3rd grade nutrition tips: Here's how to help your child

Here's how you can help your third-grader eat healthy.

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By Jamie Farnsworth Finn

Want to help your third-grader develop healthy eating habits? Here are some tips from experts.

Meal planning

Ask your child to get involved in meal planning. Continue to increase your child’s participation in the process, as it will keep them engaged and interested. Look through cookbooks and magazines and try new recipes together.

Distractions

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 helps your child listen to their body and focus on what she’s eating, when she’s full, and when she’d like more.

Pizza

Have a family pizza night and make your own pies. Your third-grader probably loves pizza, which doesn’t always have to be junk food. Let your child put their own toppings on. Use whole wheat dough, low sodium tomato sauce, different kinds of vegetables, and low-fat cheese. It’s a healthy and fun way to eat a range of food groups.

Healthier options

Make sure healthier options are easier to reach at eye-level and treats are out of site. third-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 available are healthy, making a healthy choice is easier.

Ingredients

Let your child choose what ingredients go into a salad to increase their participation in healthy meal planning and show that their opinion on what your child eats matters.

Present food

Be creative with how you present food to your third-grader. they are likely to be more adventurous at this age than they were before and presenting healthy options in creative ways can lead their 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 hers. Grilled chicken breast strips, black beans, corn, peppers, avocado, tomatoes, romaine lettuce, brown rice, and low-fat cheese are all good ingredients to include. Instead of a high-calorie salad dressing, try using salsa for a flavorful and healthier alternative.

Helpful

Have your child run the buttons on the blender as you make smoothies, or have their peel potatoes with a vegetable peeler. At this age, your child can be more helpful in the kitchen. Getting them involved in the process will get their more invested and interested in the food she’ll be eating.

Grocery shopping

Take your child grocery shopping with you and get them involved in bagging and weighing produce. Some grocery stores have scanners children can use, which can be a fun way to get their involved as well.

Independence

Present your child with different vegetables and let their decide which to eat. This will support their independence while encouraging them to eat vegetables on their own. Offer a side of carrots, sweet potato, or green beans and let their choose which one your child would like to have for dinner.

Spaghetti

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.

Veggie night

Try having a “veggie night” once a week. Serve veggie dogs or veggie burgers, hummus with cut vegetables such as 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.

Making a salad

Put your third-grader in charge of making a salad for everyone on their own and try your best not to intervene. Connecticut-based pediatric nutritionist Dr. Deb Kennedy says your child will feel very empowered as your child masters making a dish by herself.

Cut-up fruit

Keep cut-up fruit in single serve bags in the refrigerator at eye level and encourage your child to eat them as a snack. When fruit is readily available and easy to eat your child is more likely to choose it.

Apple orchard

If possible, take a family trip to a local apple orchard. Let your child 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 fun family time and gets you all moving.

Dessert

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.

Cereal with fruit

Top your child’s cereal or oatmeal with fresh berries, bananas, or chopped apple to get a serving of fruit in with breakfast. Let your child make the choice of which fruit your child would like to add.

Homemade popsicles

Try freezing berries, segments of orange, or grapes for a healthy take on homemade popsicles. Sliced bananas topped with a little orange juice and frozen in a paper cup are another option.

Low sugar content

Try to serve whole grain items with low sugar content, like oatmeal or whole wheat toast, for breakfast. Whole grains help your child to feel full longer, which makes them a great option for breakfast.

Back of a package

Always try to 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 actually be a lot of whole grains in the pasta, bread, or cereal. Whole grains should be the number one ingredient on the list.

Incorporating slowly

Try incorporating 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 for rice too, and even with sandwiches. Try one slice of wheat and one of white bread.

Oats

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 whole grains to your child’s diet.

Peanut allergies

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 butters.

Yogurt

Swap out yogurt for 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 small amount of honey.

Edamame

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 if you often run short of 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 child doesn’t have time to sit down and eat.

Lactose intolerance

If your child has a diagnosis of lactose intolerance, milk substitutes such as lactose-free cow’s milk, calcium-fortified soy milk, or almond milk are good options. Vegetables such as collard greens, kale, and soybeans also provide calcium, though in smaller amounts. However, the calcium in these vegetables is not absorbed as well as the calcium in dairy foods. Georgia-based pediatrician Dr. Jatinder Bhatia says even children with lactose intolerance can tolerate small amounts of dairy and may use products such as Lactaid to enable the consumption of dairy.

String cheese

Try stocking 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.

Low-fat milk

Use low-fat milk instead of water when preparing hot cereal, oatmeal, or soups. This is an easy way to increase your child’s dairy intake without pouring them a glass of milk.

Healthy fats

Let your child know that all fat is not necessarily bad or unhealthy. In fact, fat is essential for life, says Connecticut-based pediatric nutritionist Dr. Deb Kennedy. It’s the type of fat that makes a huge difference.

Avocado

For added healthy fats and creaminess, try adding some avocado to a smoothie.

Trans fat

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.

Margarine

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.

Check the label

Try to always check the label and be on the lookout for bad fats in 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 her fresh whole foods

The best way to reduce your child’s salt and sodium intake is to feed their fresh, whole foods, and to stay away from processed foods as much as possible.

Read the labels

Read the labels of foods you’re buying to help reduce your child’s salt and sodium intake. Since every brand and cook is different, looking for lower sodium options will really help cut back your child’s intake. Items with less than 140 milligrams of sodium per serving are considered lower sodium.

Salt shaker

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.

Moderation

Teach your child 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

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 the breakfast healthier.

Small amount of maple syrup

Try adding a small amount of maple syrup or fruit to oatmeal or low-fat yogurt. Adding sweeteners yourself allows you to control the amount your child consumes. American Heart Association spokeswoman Dr. Rachel Johnson suggests mixing sweetened yogurt to plain yogurt to cut the amount of sugar while keeping the flavor your child may be used to.

To learn more about nutrition for your child, check out our third 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.