Want to help your sixth-grader develop healthy eating habits? Here are some tips from experts.
Try to talk to your child about the foods they are eating when you’re not around. If they are into sports, highlight the importance of a healthy diet to their athletic performance. If they're concerned about their complexion, highlight the impact of healthy foods and water to a clear complexion. When you explain the benefits of healthy eating as it applies to things they're particularly concerned about, they may be more likely to take your advice.
Encourage your sixth-grader to get involved in meal planning and preparation. They will be able to help out even more in the kitchen at this age. For example, have him decide the ingredients in a salad and have it be their responsibility, from the grocery store to the dinner table.
Removing distractions during meal time
Help your child listen to their body during meal time by removing distractions. That means no texting, no TV, no computer or other gadgets at the table. This will help him identify when they're full and when he'd like more.
Healthy kitchen items
Keep items in your kitchen healthy. If you buy chips or cookies, your child will eat them. While they're helping themselves to snacks in the kitchen, making healthy choices is easy if it's the only choice your child has. And if you can’t control what your child eats out of the house, you can at least make sure that what they're eating at home is healthy.
Teach your sixth-grader about the importance of a well-balanced meal. Have them demonstrate that knowledge by packing their own lunch, or planning a family dinner. Make sure they have half the plate filled with fruits and vegetables.
Try to make sure your sixth-grader has healthy snacks packed for after school. As their metabolism increases at this age, it’s likely they’ll need a snack after school. Having a healthy option on hand may help keep them from picking something unhealthy out of a vending machine or at a store.
Trying new vegetables
Bring your child to a farmer’s market, or produce section of the supermarket, and have them pick out a vegetable they haven't tried before. You can find a recipe and prepare the new vegetable together.
Try an at-home cooking competition. If your child has siblings, give each child the same vegetables and ask them to prepare them for the family to taste test. A friendly competition can get everyone thinking about new ways to eat vegetables.
Vegetables in soups
Add vegetables to soups. Even if you don’t make your own soup, adding some vegetables to low-sodium broth can increase your child’s vegetable intake.
Have an at-home salad bar for dinner. Finely chop a variety of vegetables and let your child add their own toppings. Some children don’t love lettuce, but once it’s chopped with a lot of other vegetables, or even fruits and nuts, it can be more appealing.
Keeping fruits accessible
Keep fruits available and easily accessible for your sixth-grader to help them choose fruits as a healthy snack. A fruit bowl on the counter with bananas, apples, and oranges is one good option. Or cut up fruits and place them in storage bags in the refrigerator for easy access.
Fruit at breakfast
Try to incorporate a serving of fruit in your child’s breakfast. A whole piece of fruit or sliced fruit in yogurt or cereal are good options. Apples and bananas are good options for children who are on the go. They can be easily packed, or eaten in the car or on the bus on the way to school.
Do a small science experiment with your child. Choose different fruits and have them guess which ones will dehydrate faster. Use a dehydrator or your oven to dry the fruits and see if they were right.
Try substituting fish for beef in your family’s tacos. Popular for years in California, the fish taco is a great way to increase your child’s healthy protein intake. Tilapia or mahi mahi, which are white and flaky fish, are good options for a taco.
Substitute Greek yogurt for other yogurt. Greek yogurt has more protein than traditional yogurts. It can also be more tart. Add a touch of honey or fresh fruit if your child is used to a sweeter yogurt. You can also add Greek yogurt to a smoothie to increase protein.
To increase whole grains and experiment with new grains, cook brown rice with quinoa (pronounced keen-wah). Add black beans, greens, and salsa for a healthy dinner bowl.
Try to choose only whole grain cereals. If your child loves cereal for breakfast, providing only whole grain cereal is a good way to increase their whole grain intake. Check the label to make sure the main ingredient is whole grains. Add chopped fruits or dried fruits for sweetness instead of buying sugary cereals.
Try increasing your child’s oatmeal intake. Oatmeal is a great way to increase whole grain consumption for them. Two-ingredient oatmeal cookies are a healthy treat they can make themselves. Simply mix two mashed bananas with 1 cup of oatmeal, form into cookies and bake at 350 degrees for 15 minutes.
Try recipes with quinoa or use it as a rice replacement. In addition to being a whole grain, quinoa is also high in protein and is a great way to add whole grains and more protein to your child’s diet.
Pack low-fat string cheese for a healthy snack. It can be packed with lunch or grabbed as a quick snack for a way to increase dairy and protein consumption.
Use yogurt-based dips for vegetables as a healthy alternative to higher-fat dressings or sour cream-based dips.
Try cooking with olive or canola oils instead of butter or margarine. It’s an easy substitution to make, and you’re swapping in healthier fats.
Eating at home
Try to make as many meals at home as possible. Your sixth-grader may be eating more away from home at this age, which can mean their intake of sodium is going up. Encourage them to choose fresh, healthy foods when he’s not with you.
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 the front of the label says “0 trans fats.”
Instead of relying of packaged energy bars, which can be packed with added sodium and sugars, put nuts and dried fruits in a storage bag for a healthier on-the-go energy snack.
Always try to pick a low-sodium option when available. This can be in pre-packaged foods at the grocery store, or even when you’re eating out at a restaurant.
Teach your child about moderation. They are likely very influenced by their peers at this age, and may want to follow their unhealthy eating habits. Teach them that they can have treats their friends may be having every now and then, but not every day.
If you can, buy your child a re-usable water bottle to pack in their lunch, carry at school, and take to after-school activities. If they have water handy, your child may be less likely to choose soda or sports drinks to quench their thirst.
To learn more about nutrition for your child, check out our sixth 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.