Managing your children’s nutrition as they learn from home
Stay-at-home schooling presents mealtime challenges for caregivers and kids alike.
As schools throughout California resume fall classes remotely, parents and caretakers may find themselves wearing a variety of different hats, including the toque of a master chef or that of chief nutritionist.
With childhood obesity rampant and malnourishment — consuming too few essential vitamins, minerals and nutrients necessary to support a child’s healthy physical and intellectual development — a serious concern, parents and caregivers in these new roles must be mindful of providing nutritious meals for their young students.
What does a balanced meal look like?
“Keep meals fun, interesting and flavorful,” says Erin Morse, chief clinical dietitian for UCLA Health. “If your child tries a food and hates it, try it in a different way. Maybe they hate raw carrots but will love them roasted with a dash of salt.”
- CREATE A COLORFUL PLATE. Fill half of your child’s plate with colorful vegetables and fruit and the other half with a healthy protein and whole grain.
- START YOUR KIDS YOUNG. Children develop food preferences early in life. Expose your child to different kinds of food early on and continue adding as they grow older.
- INCORPORATE A NEW FOOD A WEEK. Try incorporating a new vegetable and fruit once a week. For example, try steamed beets, roasted purple cauliflower, baked asparagus or raw sugar snap peas.
- LIMIT ULTRA-PROCESSED FOOD, ADDED SUGARS AND TRANS-FAT. Make sure to read labels and ingredient lists of food. Cut out soda, energy drinks, sugary sport drinks and sugar sweetened beverages.
- CREATE A SHOPPING LIST. Fill your kitchen with healthy foods and involve your child in choosing what healthy snacks and meals the family eats.
Most importantly, be a role model for your child by eating a wide variety of healthy foods yourself.
How do I stop my child from over-snacking or over-eating?
Being stuck at home during quarantine can lead to stress and boredom, which can ultimately lead to mindless eating and snacking during the day. “Small changes can lead to big improvements,” Morse says. “For example, if you or your child are craving salty chips, try nuts instead. In place of ice cream, make a heathy smoothie with berries, half a ripe banana, spinach and milk or a plant-based milk. Instead of gummies, try fresh fruit.”
- CREATE A FOOD SCHEDULE. Find the common denominator for meeting all the different food needs in your family, for example three meals and one or two structured snacks a day.
- LIMIT SCREEN TIME. By limiting TV, computer, or video game time, your child will be encouraged to find something more active to do.
- DO NOT BRIBE OR REWARD KIDS WITH FOOD. Avoid using dessert as the prize for finishing a meal. This will, over the long-term, develop a negative relationship with food.
- DEVELOP STRESS-REDUCING TECHNIQUES. Take your child for a walk, show them how to mediate, write in a journal and talk about feelings.
- DRINK WATER. Dehydration can sometimes be confused with feelings of hunger. Make sure you and your child are well-hydrated by drinking plenty of water during the day.
What if my child just doesn’t want to eat?
The COVID-19 pandemic has been hard on children. Being stuck in the house, not seeing friends and family regularly, learning remotely instead of in a classroom with peers — all can lead anxiety, and even depression. Some children will try to take back some sense of control by changing their eating patterns. “Disordered patterns of eating can be very sneaky, presenting subtly over time, and they can be very easily be mistaken as normal or even healthy changes in a child’s or teen’s eating behavior,” says Dr. Michael G. Wetter, director of psychological services for the Nourish for Life and Medical Stabilization Program at UCLA Medical Center Santa Monica.
- PROVIDE STRUCTURE. Creating a routine at home can help children deal with uncertainty and anxiety. Mealtime, reading, play, crafts and exercise all are activities that can be structured and made routine so kids feel they have a degree of control in their own lives.
- TALK IT OUT. Have honest conversations about feelings, current events and family changes.
- PROVIDE PRAISE AND POSITIVE COMMENTS. Focus on strengths other than appearance-based strengths. Avoid weight or appearance-related teasing or comments within the family.
When should I reach out for help?
If you have questions and/or specific concerns about your child’s diet, talk to your child’s pediatrician or a registered dietitian. Contact your pediatrician if:
- Your child is losing weight despite efforts to feed them
- Your child is engaging in excessive, repetitive exercise and is unwilling or unable to decrease
- Your child is complaining of feeling dizzy or lightheaded
- You notice a difference in your child's mood, such as being more withdrawn, isolating, irritable, sad, or quiet.
“Ultimately, you know your child better than anyone else,” Dr. Wetter says. “If something seems even a little bit ‘off,’ it’s always best to reach out sooner rather than later for help.”