How to approach nutrition when feeding children away from home

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Child and mother preparing food
The benefits of a healthy, balanced diet are so numerous for youngsters that it’s worth doing whatever it takes to get children to embrace nutrient-rich foods, both at home and when dining out. Valley News/Courtesy photo

TEMECULA – Children can be picky eaters. Parents know that getting children to eat anything, much less healthy foods, can sometimes make the dinner table feel more like a battlefield than a place to break bread. That’s especially so when the dinner table is in a restaurant, where savvy youngsters might know less nutritious dishes like macaroni and cheese or fried chicken fingers are on the menu. But the benefits of a healthy, balanced diet are so numerous for youngsters that it’s worth doing whatever it takes to get children to embrace nutrient-rich foods, both at home and when dining out.

The American Academy of Family Physicians said that a healthy diet can stabilize children’s energy levels, help them maintain healthy weights and potentially prevent mental health conditions, including anxiety and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. But recognizing the importance of a healthy diet and getting children to embrace one are two different things, especially when children are dining out and being tempted by unhealthy alternatives. In recognition of that, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended the following strategies to parents who want their children to eat healthy when they’re away from home.

Make meals all-inclusive. When preparing school lunches or taking youngsters out for a night on the town, make sure to offer a mix of foods from the five food groups. The AAP recommended parents offer vegetables, fruit, grains, low-fat dairy and quality protein sources, which can include meat, fish, nuts, seeds and eggs. Offering each of these foods at every meal may not be feasible, but children should eat foods selected from the major food groups at every meal.

Avoid highly processed foods. The National Institutes of Health said that studies have suggested there’s a link between highly processed foods and health problems. Such foods, which typically contain ingredients such as hydrogenated oils, high-fructose corn syrup and flavoring agents, are typically high in calories, salt, sugar and fat. While highly processed foods tend to be easier to make and readily available at restaurants, serving them to youngsters can start children down the road to poor dietary habits, potentially increasing their risk for obesity and diseases like heart disease and diabetes. When packing snacks for school lunches or taking them out to restaurants, be sure to include or bring along healthy whole foods, such as fruits and vegetables. This preparation can ensure children get some healthy fare during mealtime.

Enhance foods if necessary. While high amounts of sugar, salt and fat can jeopardize the health of adults and youngsters alike, the AAP said that small amounts of these substances can be used to enhance children’s enjoyment of healthy foods and increase the likelihood that they will eat them.

Parents may not have much control over what their children eat while away from home. But a handful of strategies can increase the likelihood that children enjoy healthy fare when eating at school or at restaurants.