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Kid-friendly foods don’t have to be unhealthy! In fact, there are many nutritious and delicious foods that kids love. Here are 10 of common favorites from my kids and my clients, along with my framework for how to serve them as part of a balanced diet.
They’re salty, they’re crunchy, they travel really well. What’s not to love?! Even though they’re fun and delicious, I find that a lot of my clients feel confused about how to navigate chips. Should they just avoid purchasing and serving them? Should they give open access to them so kids don’t obsess? Should they make them a snack food and have one-per-day limits? Or should the include in a meal?
I like to treat chips as a fine food to include as part of meals or snacks. In general we don’t want them to be an every day food, and it shouldn’t offset other foods. So I think about it in terms of what nutrients do they provide, and what can we add to the chips to build balanced meals or snacks? Chips offer some fat, but mostly carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are great for fast energy, but we want steady and sustained energy for our kids (and for us too!). So we need to add protein and fiber to get that result. One way to do that would be adding half a turkey sandwich with lettuce and cheese on whole wheat bread, plus a handful of blueberries. It’s delicious, it’s fun and it shows kids that chips are just part of the meal – plus they’ll feel good and strong after.
I love cookies so much I made them part of my logo. No joke. I have definitely been known to stress eat some cookies and coffee (or just straight cookie dough), but that’s not really the best option for my body. I find cookies are a super easy thing to let our kids indulge in and not set healthy limits. And by limits I don’t mean ‘you can only have one cookie a week’. I mean showing them cookies as part of a meal or snack, doing it with intention instead of only when we feel sad/happy/mad/etc. I mean talking about cookies with respect and neutrality. Cookies are something we as adults usual ‘cave’ on when we are ‘weak’ and kids pick up on that sentiment.
So flip the script there. Start serving cookies more but do it as part of the meal or snack. Cookies are typically going to provide carbohydrate and fats – this will obviously depend on ingredients but let’s just assume those two are your biggest contributors. That means to balance it out we need protein and fiber. So maybe we do a fun steakhouse night with steak and baked potatoes and broccoli, then serve the cookie on the side with everything else. Let your kids eat in whatever order they want. Remember – food is food, they’re all giving energy.
Cake is one of those foods that can be a real treat. It’s delicious, it’s often associated with celebrations, and it can be really fun to decorate and enjoy. But often times cake is also high in carbohydrates while being low in protein and fiber, which means it’s not something that’s going to give us or our kids long term energy. Just imagine kids at a birthday party…. madness and then everyone conks out on the drive home. It’s kind of a mess.
Cake is also prime for lots of diet culture messages around restriction, limitations and ‘junk food’. Plus it is a rare food to enjoy so that combination can make kids go NUTS and overeat. Say nothing of what it does to adults (anyone else ever just go to event out the cake by taking a small bite and then end up having eaten half the cake?? No, just me? Cool)… We need to take cake off a pedestal. Eat it close to your meals, or add it on the plate – obviously that’s not how all birthday parties work but do your best. And if we are having leftovers as a snack pair it with some milk and raspberries – protein, fat, fiber, deliciousness. If you can’t pair it (like at a birthday party) then you can at least watch your language about how much your kid is eating. Stick with, ‘how does your belly feel?’ Listen to your belly to help decide how much you need.
Ice pops are a great summer treat and can help kids (and adults) stay hydrated. But like all foods, they need to be eaten as part of a balanced diet. Ice pops are mostly water, but they also have carbohydrates and sometimes other flavors. That means they don’t have a lot of protein, fat or fiber, so we need to incorporate those for satiety and balance.
When I think of ice pops, I think of cook outs, you too? Cool, lets lean into that. It’s cook out time and you’re serving potato salad, hot dogs, hopefully some big bowls of fruit. That’s a great combo to add our ice pops to. Hydrating, fun, and super satisfying. Your kids will have plenty of energy for all the swimming and games your cook out has to offer.
Donuts are one of those ‘junk foods’ that come with a lot of baggage. They’re often deep fried, they are predominantly carbohydrate based, they don’t have a ton of fiber, protein or vitamins. But guess what – we can turn that around! It’s all about how we approach food and what messages we send to our kids about it. Health isn’t one food or one way of eating, and donuts are way too delicious to completely avoid them.
So for your next Sunday morning donut run be sure to add a nice cold glass of milk and some berries, maybe even a bit of bacon or a hard boiled egg. That way instead of your kid still being hungry after one donut (hello blood sugar rollercoaster), they have a comfortably full belly and lots of great nutrients to start their day. They can still have donuts another time, but you’ll just continue balancing out those nutrients.
Soda is one of those drinks that’s so easy to over-consume for adults. It’s sweet, it’s often carbonated which can be really refreshing, and it goes down easy. But all that sugar means it’s not doing our bodies any favors. In fact, sugar sweetened beverages have been linked to chronic health conditions and, what’s more problematic to me as a pediatric dietitian – they offset other important calories and nutrients because kiddo’s bellies are too full.
If soda is something your kid is consuming daily, and even more than one a day it’s something I would strongly recommend decreasing. Even if it’s diet soda, it’s taking up space in their belly and providing no nutritional benefit. Now that we have covered that piece- when you do offer it, serve it with a protein and fiber food, do not offer between meals or snacks. So for many families when they eat out they will let kids have a soda – let’s say you have a cheeseburger, French fries and soda, add some apple and you’re good to go.
Chocolate milk gets a bad rap because of added sugars, but it can actually be part of a really well balanced diet. It has calcium for strong bones, vitamin D for immunity, and protein for growth and repair. Even with the added sugar, we don’t need to shy away from it, we just need to use it strategically!
So we know that chocolate milk has protein and fat, those are great nutrients for growing kiddos. We need to add fiber to ensure we have some consistent energy. This could look like adding some whole grain toast and berries to your chocolate milk.
Juice gets a bad rap for all the same reasons as soda – it’s easy to consume too much sugar, it can offset other nutrients, and it’s often void of any real nutritional value. But like chocolate milk, if we use it strategically it can actually be part of a really well balanced diet!
The best way to do this is keep your portions small (under 4 ounces for kids under 2 and under 6ounces for 2&older), and serve with a meal or snack. Let’s take breakfast and some fresh squeezed orange juice – if you add some whole wheat protein pancakes, maybe some bacon and lots of fresh berries you would have a fantastic balanced meal, and a very delicious one too!
Bagels are a great go-to for many families, especially on the weekends. They’re easy to grab and go, they have some staying power, and you can really make them your own. While they may have more staying power than a donut, they are still a very heavy carbohydrate burden without much fiber- plus we always want our meals to have multiple components for nutrient diversity. As with all our foods, we need to think about how we can turn them into a part of a balanced diet.
If you’re serving with some cream cheese, that will get you a good serving of fat plus some protein. I find pairing this with some milk or a hard boiled egg plus some sliced pear helps to stabilize our blood sugar and give steady energy throughout the morning. For kids (under 12) I like to offer half a bagel plus the other foods to start. This way we are modeling balance without overwhelming them with too many options.
Quick, name your favorite candy! Okay – what would your kid’s top choice be?! Now how often do you serve those items?? Probably not very often, right? After all you’re a good mom so why would you serve them regularly… Whoa that doesn’t sound like the rest of this article does it?? Nope, but it’s definitely a common inner dialogue for moms. I care so why would I offer things like that regularly. Well what if I told you that by restricting or limiting it you’re actually making it more craveable, and more likely for your kids to obsess? Yep, it’s true! So let’s serve those sweets with the meal, and this is important, out of the wrapper. Get the little Milky Way bar on the plate with their chicken nuggets and carrots, they’re equal because they’re all food. The protein and fat in their meal will help avoid the sugar rush you’re used to but it will also help your kid enjoy those sweets with moderation – which is the absolute goal, right?!
It can be tough to make sure your kids are eating a well-rounded, healthy diet. But with a little creativity and planning, it’s definitely doable! In this blog post, we discussed 10 of our favorite kid-friendly foods and how to serve them as part of a balanced diet. We also provided some tips on getting your kids to eat their veggies! I hope you found some great ideas that will help you keep your little ones healthy and happy!
If you’d like to learn more about how to feed your kids with confidence and no pressure, be sure to grab my book Blissful Meals