As a parent, feeding children nourishing foods is one of your most important jobs. And although most new moms and dads start with impeccable intentions (homemade baby food, anyone?), there’s a tendency to give up the campaign as easygoing babies grow into often-picky toddlers and kids. After all, they have to eat, right?
It’s unfortunate, because the stakes are high. According to the American Heart Association, about one in three American kids and teens today is overweight or obese, thus at greater risk for type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. A recent Australian study linked the “Western diet”—high in processed sugars, fats, and starches, as well as meats and salt, and low in fresh fruits and vegetables—to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in adolescents.
The good news: It’s never too late to introduce healthy foods to a child. Here are six nutritional powerhouses your child might actually eat.
Avocado. Loaded with healthy monounsaturated fats, potassium, and folate, creamy avocados are a natural early-childhood favorite, says pediatrician Robert Sears, MD, author of HappyBaby: The Organic Guide to Baby's First 24 Months (HarperCollins, 2009).
How to eat: Spoon out straight from the rind. Mash into guacamole with garlic and cilantro if desired. Spread onto toast or a sandwich instead of butter or mayo. Blend with cocoa powder, agave nectar, vanilla, and water for an irresistible dip for fruit, says Kelly Corbet, nutrition educator and founder of smartfoodshealthykids.com.
Berries. Antioxidants in blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries help prevent illness and improve brain function, says Sears. Choose organic to avoid pesticide residue. Nutritionally, frozen are just as good as fresh. Also try: antioxidant-rich acaí berries (in powder form or frozen smoothie packs), dried goji berries.
How to eat: Eat plain or add berries to cereal or oatmeal; leave whole or purée and pour over waffles. Blend with yogurt and bananas in a smoothie.
Chia seeds. New to the U.S. market, this South American grain (the most researched variety of which is marketed as Salba) may be the world’s healthiest, says Sears. It’s gluten-free; provides more omega-3 fatty acids than any other plant food; contains six times more calcium than milk; and is a rich source of vitamin C, protein, fiber, magnesium, and iron. Also try: hemp seed and flaxseed.
How to eat: Sprinkle chia, hemp seed, or ground flaxseed onto cereal, salad greens, or brown rice. Add chia to juice to make a “chia fresca.” Spread nutty-tasting hemp seed onto PB&Js.
Quinoa and amaranth. Nutritionally these grains—traditional foods in South America and Africa, respectively—by far trump typical North American grains. Both gluten-free, they contain more protein and calcium than wheat, oats, rice, or rye.
How to eat: Triple-wash quinoa, vigorously rubbing grains to remove bitter outside coating—then cook either quinoa or amaranth like rice for 20 minutes. Cook in water, and then stir in applesauce and cinnamon and serve as a cereal; or cook in broth, and then stir in chopped, fresh herbs.
Wild salmon. “Wild salmon is perhaps the healthiest fish source of omega-3 fats and protein, the two most important nutrients that kids need to grow,” says Sears. Choose wild-caught salmon (fresh or frozen) over farmed to avoid possible contaminants, he says.
How to eat: Glaze roasted fillets with orange juice and teriyaki sauce, or a mix of maple syrup, grated ginger, and rice vinegar. Make a salmon–goat cheese (or Neufchâtel) tortilla wrap; cut into spirals.
Win the healthy-food battle
“Imprint” healthy tastes. “If you only expose your baby to healthy, whole foods from the beginning, taste buds will develop to enjoy and crave those foods,” says Robert Sears, MD. Bland, processed foods such as baby crackers offer empty calories and can dull taste buds, he says.
Try, try again. If it’s not love at first bite, don’t despair, counsels Alan Greene, MD, author of Feeding Baby Green (Jossey-Bass, 2009). Offer a wide variety of vegetables and fruits and introduce each one at least 16 times. (Tip: Keep a checklist.)
Follow the one-bite rule. When kids know they only need to try (not finish) new foods, peace reigns at the dinner table, says Greene.
Presentation is everything. If your child doesn’t like a cooked vegetable, try it raw. Grate it, peel it, finely chop it. Add sesame oil, curry spice, cinnamon, a splash of tamari, or nut-butter sauce.
Dip it. Veggies are more fun when dunked. Make your own ranch dressing with protein-rich low-fat Greek yogurt, suggests smartfoodshealthykids.com founder Kelly Corbet.
Give your child the chef’s hat. Empowerment equals enthusiasm. Plus, learning to prepare healthy food is an invaluable lifelong skill, says Daina Kalnins, RD, clinical dietician at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto and coauthor of Better Food for Kids (Robert Rose, 2010).
Superfood mix-ins for kids
Stir these superfoods into your child’s meals—using a clean (or spare) coffee grinder first if needed—says chef Anni Daulter, author of Organically Raised (Rodale, 2010). Store any extra in glass jars in the refrigerator.
Acaí berries: Navitas Naturals Acaí Powder
Chia seeds: Ancient Naturals Salba; HappyTot organic baby food with Salba
Flaxseed: Bob’s Red Mill Organic Golden Flaxseeds
Goji berries: Navitas Naturals Organic Goji Berries
Hemp seed: Nutiva Organic Shelled Hempseed
Nuts (raw and unsalted, for kids older than 1): NOW Foods Organic Raw Walnuts
Seaweed: Sea’s Gift Korean Seaweed Snacks
Wheat germ: Bob’s Red Mill Natural Raw Wheat Germ