How a Pediatrician Helps Her Family Eat Healthfully at Home

February 20, 2017 6:00 AM

Parents who struggle to get their children to eat a balanced diet aren’t alone, a new U-M poll shows. But there are easy ways to help establish good habits.

For many families, dinnertime can be a delicate dance.

Balancing the demands of picky palates with a desire to serve healthful meals — particularly when hectic schedules and tight budgets are involved — is a challenge, a new report from the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll has found.

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Just one-third of parents (34 percent) are confident they are doing a good job shaping their child’s eating habits, the survey revealed. And a mere 17 percent rate their child’s diet as “very healthy.”

That’s no surprise. “Most people know what they should be doing,” says Sara Laule, M.D., a Mott pediatrician and a mother of two toddlers, “but it can be hard to follow through.”

A majority of households, however, still fared OK. Fifty-six percent consider their child’s diet “mostly healthy.”

But the poll, which surveyed 1,767 parents nationwide, found other concerns. Among them: prohibitive costs of healthy food (70 percent) and the inconvenience of buying or cooking it (51 percent). About half also reported they aren’t sure what is, in fact, considered healthy.

Nearly a quarter of parents struggle to find nutritious food in their own neighborhoods, a problem that’s more pressing for people with less education or who live in low-income areas. And, the poll found, 1 in 5 finds it somewhat or not important to limit junk food and expose a child to new and healthy foods.

Laule, who wasn’t involved with the survey, advocates that parents do everything they can to help their children eat right: “Establishing good eating habits early really sets them up for the future.”

Here, she addresses some of the issues cited in the report — and tips to tackle each one.

5 fixes for common concerns

My child is a picky eater: Labeling a kid “picky” might be premature. Most children need 10 to 15 exposures to a new food before accepting it, Laule says. “Exposure” could be a single bite. And it shouldn’t be a power struggle. “It’s the parent’s job to decide what foods to offer; the child can decide how much to eat,” she says. To encourage curiosity, place foreign foods next to existing favorites and celebrate a new tasting. Motivation for Laule’s 3-year-old son: a “race” where Matchbox cars move across the table after each mouthful.

SEE ALSO: Want to Help Your Teen Eat Healthy? Don’t Use the Word ‘Diet’

I don’t have time to prepare healthy food: Part of the solution, Laule says, is planning ahead. By cooking at home on a Sunday or making larger entrees to portion out as leftovers or lunches, you’re less likely to rely on drive-thru or processed foods. Laule is a fan of simple, set-it-and-forget-it slow-cooker meals that can simmer all day (and will often feed a family more than once). For kids on the go, she recommends packing string cheese or sandwich bags with carrots or celery. Another snack hack: Dress up celery or bananas with peanut butter.

The family grocery budget is tight: Again, keeping tabs on future meals before the cupboard is empty can help avoid frequent trips to the store or a reliance on grab-and-go entrees just to get dinner on the table. By shopping with a list for only the necessary items, “you’re more likely to save money,” Laule says. Cooking with produce shouldn’t break the bank, but fresh items do have a limited shelf life. Making sure to use what is purchased before it wilts, then, is key. Consider sneaking soon-to-expire veggies into sauces or smoothies.

The definition of “healthy” is unclear: Parents needn’t worry about every nutritional buzzword such as “all-natural” or “organic” — especially if a child’s palate is limited. “If you’re getting fruits and vegetables in, I think that’s great,” Laule says. “Sometimes you see labels that say fat-free or sugar-free, but it’s not always healthy.” She encourages families to focus on items high in whole grains (and avoid microwaveable entrees and other processed foods when possible). And, she notes, ditch the soda and sugary fruit juice. Serve milk or water instead.

I’m guilty of bad habits, too: You can’t expect your kids to finish their greens when you’re enjoying french fries. “You have to lead by example,” Laule says. So be sure everyone partakes in the same spread. Giving children some ownership before the meal also is a good way to help them feel more involved — asking, for instance, whether they’d prefer broccoli or carrots when you’re planning a menu. And share the cooking process when appropriate. A salad can seem a lot more appealing to a young chef who personally helped dice the veggies.