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Guest Column: Children and nutrition: How strict should you be?

By Emily Schmidt

Albert Lea resident Emily Schmidt is a registered dietitian at Mayo Clinic Health System in Albert Lea. She enjoys writing, cooking and spending time with her son and family.

Childhood obesity and other health problems, including high cholesterol and Type 2 diabetes, are becoming more prevalent in our society — issues that are often connected with nutrition and eating habits. Many parents, grandparents and other caregivers of children struggle with getting kids to eat healthy; even dietitians encounter challenging nutrition situations with their kids.

Emily Schmidt

Whether it’s worrying about your children consuming too much sugar or feeling helpless when it comes to getting them to eat fruits and vegetables, you may wonder if you’re being too strict or if you should be doing more. As with many things in life, the answer is balance: Find the happy medium with kids and nutrition. Fortunately, there are sensible strategies to alleviate two of the most common nutrition issues encountered with this age group.

Picky eating. Children are notorious for being picky eaters (though not all of them!), which can be incredibly frustrating for both kids and caregivers. According to principles of Ellyn Satter, a dietitian who is also a family therapist and expert in feeding and eating, it shouldn’t be such a battle. Take a step back and give your child more freedom in their feeding behaviors. Children should not be put on strict diets or advised to limit a wide variety of foods and beverages. In fact, this usually results in the opposite of being healthy. By forcing strict diet guidelines on a young child, the risk of disordered eating is unfortunately increased (eating disorders or other unhealthy relationships with food, eating and body image). For toddlers through adolescents, Ellyn Satter states that regarding feeding, parents are “responsible for what, when, and where” and children are responsible for “how much and whether.”

In other words, it’s up to the parents to provide the food, have a regular eating structure without constant grazing, and ensure that mealtimes are a positive experience rather than a shouting match. Kids decide how much they will eat at the mealtime or snack, and whether or not they’re going to eat something. Avoid having your child clean their plate; instead of telling them they can’t leave the table until their food is gone, let them know that their meal can be finished whenever they are full or don’t feel like eating anymore. Ultimately, this promotes more positive eating habits by leading children to eat only when they’re truly hungry versus bored or emotional, and eating the appropriate amount of food rather than restricting or bingeing.

Sugar overload. Should children never eat sugar — is it toxic? Should you let them eat as much sugar as they want? Children can remain in good health if they eat sugar in moderation. If they consume a balanced food pattern including protein sources such as lean meat, seafood, eggs, beans and nuts or seeds, fruits and vegetables, whole grains and dairy, they can absolutely handle an ice cream cone or an occasional candy bar. On the other hand, if most of their diet is made up of high-sugar items (sugary cereals, soda or juice, candy or desserts, etc.) then parents and caregivers should work to reduce the amount of these food and beverage items the children are exposed to either at home or away from home (remember, parents are responsible for what, when, and where kids eat per Ellyn Satter), and positively encourage healthy meals and fruit, yogurt, string cheese, vegetables (with dip or hummus, if needed), nuts/seeds or nut/seed butter, and other healthy snacks in between meals. Explain that certain foods and beverages are not necessarily bad, but they’re only meant to be treats and consumed occasionally.

Ultimately, you should neither allow children to eat whatever they want or be completely strict when it comes to their feeding habits. Find the middle ground and be a good role model, provide healthy foods and regular meal and snack structure, and give positive reinforcement and encouragement. These are all important factors for both your child’s physical and mental health!

If you’re interested in learning more about Ellyn Satter and her recommendations for nutrition and eating behaviors for children of all ages, visit www.ellynsatterinstitute.org.