Kindergarten nutrition tips: Here's how to help your child

Here's how you can help your kindergartner eat healthy.
Young boy cooking with peeled apples

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By Jamie Farnsworth Finn

Want to help your kindergartner develop healthy eating habits? Here are some tips that experts suggest.

Outer aisles

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 all together will keep them from seeing these items – and trying to convince you to add them to the cart.

Plan meals

Let your child help plan meals and shop. Let them pick out a new vegetable, help wash it and serve it to the family. Your children can also help set and clear the table. Getting them involved in the meal process will help them learn about healthy foods while reinforcing healthy eating habits.

New foods

Have your child try new foods. Missouri-based pediatrician Dr. Natasha Burgert tells her kindergarten patients that being in school means “big kid learning” and trying new things. She asks them to try one new healthy thing to eat each month. She asks them to try at least one bite and then bring back a list of the twelve new foods at their next annual checkup.

Grow plants

Help your kindergartner learn about foods by planting a few herbs, such as basil and cilantro, on a windowsill. Have them water the herbs and watch them grow. When the herbs are big enough, show your child how you’ll use them to cook and let him taste how they change the flavors. You could also try this with tomatoes or other foods, depending on your space. This not only piques your child’s interest in the food, but also teaches her some science.

Model eating behavior

Ask family members or friends your child admires to model healthy eating behavior for your child. 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 if your child wants to grow big and strong like their role model, your child needs to eat healthy foods.

Healthy meal

Teach your kindergartner what a healthy meal and snack is made of. A fruit and vegetable should be eaten at each meal and one at snack time.

Make meals fun

Make meals and snacks fun. Your younger child will be interested in creative healthy snacks. For example, make “ants on a log” by placing peanut butter, or other nut butters, on celery sticks and let your child add raisins, dried cranberries, or other dried fruits to represent the ants.

No tech distractions

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.

Low-sugar alternatives

Try sending bottles of water, low-fat cheese sticks, apple slices, or raisins instead of high-sugar and high-sodium snacks to school parties. Silly straws, temporary tattoos, and stickers are a good way to add to the festivities without adding calories.

Don't force eating

Try not to force your child into eating. Sometimes kindergartners show less interest in eating dinner. Pediatrician Dr. Natasha Burgert reminds the parents in their practice that the biggest meals may be breakfast and lunch, leading to fewer calories needed at night. Dr. Burgert says that as long as your child is growing normally, forcing food is never a good idea. Let them learn to eat when their body is telling them to be hungry.

Add salt

Try adding a touch of salt, a small amount of ketchup, or low-fat salad dressing to your child’s vegetables. 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. Adding these flavors can help cut the bitterness. Your child will get used to the bitter taste over time as long as you continue to offer that particular vegetable.

Different vegetables

Remember to eat your vegetables too. At this age your child is likely to model, or 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 them want to have fun as well – leading them to eat more of their vegetables as well.

Veggies with dip

Try raw vegetables like carrot sticks, pea pods, green beans, and celery with a dip like hummus or low-fat ranch dressing to make the vegetables more appealing to your child.

Veggie burgers

Try serving your kindergartner veggie burgers and veggie dogs if he or she is a picky eater. Delivering vegetables in a food form your child may be used to is another way to promote the development of vegetable eating, while their taste buds are still forming.

Dried fruits

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.

Sliced fruits

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.

Smoothies

Smoothies are a good way to pack in a lot of fruits in one serving. Add whole bananas, frozen berries, low-fat milk, and blend. You can even add spinach. The fruits will mask its taste. It’s a treat that tastes like a frozen dessert, but packs a lot of nutrients. Be careful not to serve too much - try to stay under 6 ounces.

Whole tortillas

Try whole grain tortillas with melted low-fat cheese for a snack that packs in both grains and dairy.

Add whole grain cereal

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 almonds or walnuts and your child has a complete and healthy breakfast.

Whole grains make great snacks

Combining whole grain pretzels or crackers with peanut butter or low-fat cheese is a quick and easy healthy snack.

Whole grains for breakfast

Whole grains help your child feel full longer, making whole grains a great option for breakfast. Try to serve whole grain items with low sugar content for breakfast to keep him full and satisfied.

Check for whole grain

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.

Slowly add whole grain

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.

Two servings of fish

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.

Tuna servings

Try to limit the amount of tuna you serve your child 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.

Color hard-boiled eggs

Color some hard-boiled eggs with your child. Dying eggs with your child is not only a fun activity for you to share; it can make eating eggs more appealing. Let your child pick which color egg they would like for breakfast.

Milk substitutes

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, but calcium in these sources is not as well absorbed as the calcium in dairy foods.

Low-fat milk

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 him a glass of milk.

Avoid too much 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.

No trans fats

Stay away from 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.

Buy tub 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.

Check the label to avoid the 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 found in vegetable and olive oils, avocado, and fatty fish like salmon.

Fresh foods

Feed your kindergartner fresh, whole foods, and stay away from processed foods as much as possible. This is the best way to keep their sodium intake down. Studies from the Centers for Disease Control show that most of children’s sodium comes from processed foods and foods eaten away from home, like chicken fingers and pizza.

Check food labels

Try to always check the labels of the food you’re buying. Since every brand and cook is different, looking for lower sodium options will really help cut back your child’s intake.

Rinse canned vegetables

Drain and rinse canned vegetables to reduce the amount of sodium when not buying the low-sodium or no salt added version. Frozen vegetables have less sodium than canned vegetables and are a good option when fresh vegetables aren’t available.

Limit screen time

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.

Occasional desserts

Have occasional dessert at home two or three nights a week regardless of how your child has eaten. Some nights are dessert nights, others are not. The random nature of dessert will keep your child from fighting or overeating just to get dessert. It also helps to avoid rewarding a clean plate with dessert, which can lead to unhealthy calories.

Teach moderation

Teach your child moderation. If you completely forbid some foods, it may make him or her more likely to want them.

Fruits for dessert

Focus on fruits as a dessert most nights and avoid ice creams, candies and pastries except for in special occasions. And remember, children do not need dessert every night.

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