Want to help your fourth-grader develop healthy eating habits? Here are some tips from experts.
Ask your child to help in meal planning. As they get older, keeping them involved in the meal process will keep them engaged and interested. Look through cookbooks and magazines and try new recipes together.
Make mealtime free of distractions so your fourth-grader can 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 he’s eating, when he’s full, and when he’d like more.
Family pizza night
Have a family pizza night and make your own pies. Your fourth-grader probably loves pizza, which doesn’t always have to be junk food. Let them participate in putting their 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 get a range of food groups.
Try to make sure healthier options are easier to reach and that treats are out of sight. fourth-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.
Let your child decide what goes into a salad to increase their participation in healthy choices and show that their opinion about what they eats matters.
Be creative with how you present food to your fourth-grader. They are likely to be more adventurous at this age than they were before and presenting healthy options in creative 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 them decide what goes into theirs. 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 high-calorie salad dressing, try using salsa for a flavorful and healthier alternative.
Help out more
At this age, your fourth-grader can help out more in the kitchen. Have them run the buttons on the blender as you make smoothies, or have them peel potatoes with a vegetable peeler. Getting them involved in the process will get them more invested and interested in the food they'll be eating.
Take your child grocery shopping with you and get him involved in bagging and weighing produce and scanning items.
Present your fourth-grader with healthy options and let him decide which to eat. This will help support your child’s independence and encourage him to choose vegetables on their own. Offer a side of carrots, sweet potato, or green beans and let him choose which one your child would like to have for dinner.
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 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 fourth-grader in charge of making a salad for everyone by themselves and try your best not to intervene. Connecticut pediatric nutritionist Dr. Deb Kennedy says they will feel very empowered as your child masters making a dish on their own.
Keep cut-up fruit in single-serve bags in the refrigerator at eye level to encourage your fourth-grader to eat it as a snack. When fruit is readily available and easy-to-eat your child is more likely to choose it
Local apple orchard
If it’s an option for your family, try to take a 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 good family time and 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.
Cereal or oatmeal
Top your fourth-graders cereal or oatmeal with fresh berries, bananas, or chopped apple to get a serving of fruit in with breakfast. Let your child choose which fruit your child would like to add.
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 to keep your child full and satisfied. Whole grains help him feel full longer, making whole grains a great option for breakfast. Look for products with 10 or fewer grams of sugar per serving and 3 or more grams of fiber.
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.
If your child isn’t used to whole grains, try to incorporate them slowly. Try mixing whole wheat pasta with white pasta and gradually adding more whole 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 white bread.
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 fourth-graders 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 for low-fat Greek yogurt, which has more protein than its counterpart. Greek yogurt is a bit more tart 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 fourth-grader to remove the beans from their pods and enjoy.
If you’re often short on time in the morning, try hard-boiling eggs ahead of time. 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 they don't have time to sit down and eat in the morning.
If your fourth-grader has a diagnosis of lactose intolerance, milk substitutes such as lactose-free cow's milk, fortified soy milk, or almond milk are good options. Georgia-based Pediatrician Dr. Jatinder Bhatia says that even children with lactose intolerance can tolerate small amounts of dairy and may use products such as Lactaid to enable the consumption of dairy.
Easily packable, low-fat string cheese makes a good snack for kids that are on the go. String cheese is also good for packed lunches.
Milk instead water
Try to use milk instead of water when preparing hot cereal, oatmeal, or soup. This is an easy way to increase your child’s dairy intake without pouring him a glass of milk.
Not necessarily bad
Let your fourth-grader know that fat is not necessarily bad or unhealthy, that in fact it is essential for life, says Connecticut-based pediatric nutritionist Dr. Deb Kennedy. It’s the type of fat that makes a huge difference.
Try to 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.
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.
If you want to avoid the bad fats in pre-packaged foods, check the label. 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 him fresh, whole foods, and to stay away from processed foods as much as possible.
Read the labels
Try to read the labels of foods you’re buying to help reduce your child’s salt and sodium intake. Since every brand and cook are different, looking for lower sodium options will really help cut back your child’s intake. Pediatric nutritionist Dr. Deb Kennedy of Build Healthy Kids in Connecticut suggests looking at the label for items with less than 140 mg of sodium per serving.
Try not to 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.
At this age your child is used to the school cafeteria, and it’s likely your child notices the differences in how their peers eat. your child will probably be influenced by peers who may want unhealthy choices like candy and soda. Try to emphasize to him that sweet treats are an occasional indulgence, and not an everyday occurrence.
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 sugar makes the breakfast even healthier.
Try adding a small amount of maple syrup or fruit to oatmeal or yogurt. Adding sweeteners yourself allows you to control the amount your child consumes. American Heart Association spokeswoman Dr. Rachel Johnson suggests mixing sweetened yogurt with 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 fourth 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.