Ask a Nutritionist: Nutritional Tips for Children and Families

As parents and educators, most of us know the basics of childhood nutrition: Avoid foods that are crazy high in sugar; try to talk to your kids about healthy choices; share family meals together. However, with the overwhelming amount of information online (much of which is untrustworthy and often undisclosed “sponsored content”), it can be difficult to cut through the noise and get to the real information.

Furthermore, we are now more aware than ever before about the unique links between diet and mental health, as well as the idea of having “a healthy relationship with food.” But what does that really mean, and how can we do it with our kids and families?

This month, we decided to get to the bottom of it. We interviewed Jessica Stamm, RDN (Registered Dietitian Nutritionist), who has spent her career educating and supporting children and families in healthy nutrition. Not only are her ideas innovative and actionable, but they sound delicious— we have a few new ideas for our own grocery lists this week!

Read on to get answers to our most pressing questions.

Talking about nutrition with kids seems like a sticky subject. How can families navigate this topic successfully?

My best advice would be to continue to make food and overall health fun for your family. Too often, parents stress over their child having the “perfect” diet, when there is no one perfect way to eat for your child – not to mention the anxiety around food is sure to rub off onto your kid’s views on nutrition, body image, and much more!

Continue to offer a wide variety of food items with different textures, tastes and smells. Let your child help with the shopping, food prep and cooking. Keep dialogue open with no judgment on any certain food items while doing so. You will be surprised by what ends up being your kid’s new favorite foods and they will probably change often!

It seems like mealtimes can escalate to big emotions really quickly. Any tips for healthy family meals?

Make mealtime more of a fun event than a chore. Set up a space in your house where most meals happen that is peaceful and inviting. We like to sit around our dining table and then play “I Spy” with our wall decorations, which include a map of California poster and pictures of our family and friends.

Serve up your family meals without a big fuss of one item over another. For example, present a fun plate of tuna salad, toast, parmesan broccoli, and berries. Avoid making it a plate of “eat your broccoli or else,” plus some other food, if you know what I mean. The bigger deal you make about needing to eat a certain thing, the less likely your child is to eat it. Trust that your child is navigating all different foods daily and their taste buds adjust. Unless they are only eating a handful of foods total, they are doing just fine!

It feels like every week there’s some new hot nutrition tip in magazines, on Pinterest, or on Instagram. What should parents really know about good childhood nutrition?

I would say the best thing to remember is that there is no one way or right way to go about your child’s eating needs. If you like to scroll your feed for new, creative ideas on yummy recipes and convenience meals, I say go for it! The options are endless, and the more foods you try in creative ways, the bigger your family’s database for successful mealtimes is.

I would caution everyone to watch out for harmful nutrition and health messages out there though – there are many! Red flags would be: nutrition for kids/teens focused on measuring or weighing, anyone stating a black-and-white meal plan, anyone demonizing certain food groups, or anything that seems at all extreme.

When it comes to nutritional advice, how can parents tell if a source is trustworthy? What kinds of certifications should a professional offer, and what is the difference between those certifications?

In our day and age, it seems like anyone can call themselves a “health coach” or nutritional professional on platforms like Instagram and more. A sure way to guarantee that the person you are talking to has had intense training, schooling, and more is to look for RDN as their credential.

RDN stands for Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. In order to obtain this credential, one must complete a didactic program in dietetics from a university while majoring in Nutritional Science/Applied Nutrition. After that, RDNs must then complete a minimum one-year internship with an emphasis on food service management, clinical nutrition in a hospital setting, public health nutrition, and more. Lastly, after the internship, RDNs have to pass a written exam and stay up to date on continuing education to keep their credential.

We’ve heard the myth that medical doctors only take one day of nutritional training. Is that true?

I can’t speak for all doctors, but many do not focus on nutritional science during training. Often nutrition is lumped in with body mass index (BMI) and weight focus alone.

It is a great idea to work with a team of professionals— including your primary care provider and dietitian— for care for yourself or family members with food-related health concerns such as diabetes, GI issues, hypertension, thyroid problems, and more.

Are there any milestones that parents should keep in mind while transitioning nutritional needs from preschool years, to elementary, to teen years?

Generally speaking, with each developmental milestone and growth spurt, there comes more nutritional needs in regards to more foods.

Listen to what your child or teen is saying. It could be that they want to try foods cooked in a different way. They may have completely new favorite foods simply because a best friend does. They may have new dislikes (and that’s okay!). They might want to eat a lot more on one day and a lot less on another, which is completely fine and normal.

Be on your child’s team and let them know you are there for them to listen to their wants and to help navigate through trying times with them. If you feel you would benefit from extra support on your child’s health squad, reach out to a Registered Dietitian in your area.

We often hear that homemade is best, but we know that’s not realistic all the time. As a parent and RDN, what do you look for when purchasing pre-packaged foods?

I usually look for items that have a more natural ingredients list, are go-to favorites for the kids’ individual taste buds, and provide a little dose of protein paired with carbohydrate and fiber.

What are your favorite, go-to snacks for kids?

I love having a variety of snacks to suit the kids’ cravings and nutritional needs. Some of my favorites are dehydrated, crunchy dried fruits; turkey jerky sticks; mixed nut and trail mix packs or shelled pistachios; fruit & veggie squeezers (spinach + apple is my son’s fave); cottage cheese with granola; hummus with pita wedges and veggies; giant rainbow carrots with tzatziki; lentils mixed with bruschetta served with crackers; and berry skewers dipped in yogurt.

As a professional, what are the top three things you wish every family could prioritize for their child’s health?

  1. Don’t focus on BMI, and please don’t encourage scales. Your child has so much more going on to determine overall health than just weight and height. Think about overall nutrition and physical activity habits for a better gauge.
  2. Let your child be an intuitive eater. Let the “clean your plate club” be a thing of the past. Children inherently know when they are hungry and when they are full – trust them and you will be happily surprised.
  3. Find ways to make movement and exercise into a fun, family event. Try dance parties, tag hide and seek, walking the dog, “Simon Says” tournaments, jumping on a trampoline, and some modified sports action.

What do you wish all parents and families knew about nutrition?

Nutrition does not equal calories and weight. Too often, I see parents worrying over calorie counting for themselves and their kids and discussing the scale. These habits can do far more harm than any good for your little ones.

I wish parents and families would seek out joy with food, make mealtimes a pleasant experience, and find ways to make nutrition information an interesting and personal discovery for each member of the family.

Talk about what foods are each of your favorites and why – do you love the crunchy satisfaction of that apple? Does eating a raw, giant carrot let your kids feel like they are a horse at a farm? Bring the fun into eating and let your kids be a part of the mindful eating experience!

Jessica Stamm, RDN

Jessica Stamm, RDN

Jessica Hummel Stamm, RDN, is a registered dietitian nutritionist at Healthy Medium Nutrition, a private practice in La Crescenta, California.
Instagram: @healthy.medium.nutrition

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