Part of my job as a pediatric Registered Dietitian is to answer questions, lots of questions.
Parents want to know how to take the battle out of mealtime. Should their child follow a gluten-free diet? Is milk okay? How much should their child weigh? Should their child take a vitamin? What about soy milk? Is juice okay? The list goes on and on.
The bottom line is this: parents want their kids to be healthy and thriving. March is National Nutrition Month, so there’s no better way to celebrate than to answer a few of the most common questions I get asked on a day-to-day basis! While I cannot say that I can fix all of these problems for every child, I can offer some evidence-based advice to help you in your nutrition journey with your child.
(Disclaimer: Every child is different, and some of my advice may not fit your individual child’s needs. Please consult your doctor or speak with a Registered Dietitian to tailor suggestions that will best fit your child.)
How do I get my picky eater to try new things?
Having my own picky four year old, I understand the frustration of plating a meal with colorful fruits, veggies, protein, grains, and dairy just for my child to complain or request something else. It’s enough to make you want to throw some crackers on their plate and call it a night.
Here’s my tip: include one new food per meal and try making your child’s plate more intriguing. Let’s say your child’s favorite meal is chicken nuggets, fries, ketchup, and fruit. Sound familiar? Try plating some nuggets, adding a few fries, and also add some carrots and jicama cut in long length-wise shapes to resemble fries! Encourage your child to dip them in the ketchup just like a fry. Although you desire to reduce your child’s consumption of nuggets and fries, you are also slowly introducing them to new foods! Over time, you may be able to completely substitute a less healthy food for a new, healthier option!
How can I be sure that my child is eating enough protein?
Many parents are concerned that their child is not eating enough protein during the day. While your child’s individual protein needs would best be determined by a Doctor or Registered Dietitian, most healthy children do not need as much protein as you would think.
If a child is a picky eater, you may wish to add supplemental protein into their diet by adding protein powder to their drinks or smoothies. My advice is to always check with your doctor or a Registered Dietitian before doing this! Our bodies cannot process excessive amounts of protein well and little developing kidneys may become over-stressed by the protein load. As long as your child is generally healthy and gaining appropriate weight, they are likely consuming enough protein and do not need any extra sources outside of their meals and snacks.
How do I get my underweight child to gain weight?
When my son was two, he fell lower than I would like on the growth charts. As a dietitian, I obsessed over this and felt feelings of failure. Had I not provided healthy, calorie-rich meals to my son? Why wasn’t he growing well? Although every child is different, I was able to help my own child to gain weight using a few rules and tips.
First, resist the temptation to allow your child graze all day. Set a meal and snack schedule, then stick to it! To encourage your child to become hungry and eat more, it helps to create a predictable environment in which your child’s mind triggers them to become hungry at certain times.
Second, make family meal time a priority! Turn off the t.v., put away the devices, and focus on family time at the dinner table. This communicates to your child that meal time is only for eating, not entertainment. If your child sees you enjoying your meal, they are more likely to try new foods and eat more.
Third, pack in the calories into their food any way you can! Mash a banana in their oatmeal and add 1 Tablespoon of peanut butter. Give them homemade trail mix as a snack made with mixed nuts and dried fruit. Add extra oil to the pan when you make a stir-fry.
As a disclaimer, I realize that every child is different and some may have underlying medical issues causing poor weight gain. Consider a pediatric nutritional supplement drink if diet alone does not help. Always talk with your doctor or Registered Dietitian before starting a nutritional supplement. They will be able to help you determine what product would be the best fit for your child.
What are some quick, easy ways to prepare healthy snacks and meals in advance?
As a full-time working mother, I have very little time at night to devote to fixing dinner. Throwing together a healthy meal can seem daunting, but you will be well prepared with some meal planning. Decide on a time that you will meal plan for each week and prioritize it! No more staring at the fridge trying to decide how to piece a meal together from random ingredients!
Every Saturday, I take 30 minutes to check my fridge for staples that need replacing and write down a plan for meals and snacks for five days. I focus on meals that I know will make leftovers for lunches. I prepare ideas for snacks for my kids that are quick and healthy – prepackaged bags of whole grain snacks or veggie straws, apples, clementines, yogurt tubes, raisins, carrots, individual servings of hummus, applesauce pouches, cheese sticks, etc.
You may wonder why I said that I only meal plan for five days. That is because I have found for our family that our leftovers can feed us for more than one meal or can be repurposed to make something new. I stick to wraps and “bento boxes” for lunches, allowing us to eat dinner leftovers on another night. The bento box craze is my latest favorite way to put together a healthy lunch! My favorite pairing is a mixture of grapes and strawberries, string cheese, a serving of pretzels, baby carrots, hummus, and a boiled egg. I love the variety in the meal and feel completely full afterward!
Should my child take a multivitamin or any other type of nutritional supplement?
My answer is generally no — if your child is generally healthy and does not have a medical condition, he or she do not likely need a multivitamin. I always encourage anyone who asks this question to discuss why they feel their child would need a multivitamin. Often, parents will then talk about their child’s picky eating habits or inability to gain weight. There may be circumstances at times when a child would benefit from additional vitamins and minerals; however, most children get more than enough from a regular diet. Even picky eaters often are meeting or exceeding their age-specific requirements for vitamins and minerals! It is always best for your child to get what they need from a diet containing a wide variety of foods, not a pill or a powder.
Was this information helpful, Mamas? Comment below with any additional questions you have!
Jamie Murfee is a pediatric Registered Dietitian at Children’s of Alabama living in Vestavia with her husband and two children, ages 4 and 14 months old. She got her bachelors degree in nutrition from Samford University, then her masters degree in Clinical Nutrition from UAB. She is passionate about helping others learn how to live a healthier lifestyle while also saving room for treats along the way. Dark chocolate, anyone?