The ABCs of Healthy Eating for Kids

Dr. Kim Newell offers tips for helping children stay healthy.

Interview by Dolores Radding

2014 The ABCs of Healthy Eating Inside_healt

Kim Newell, MD

Establishing healthy eating habits is an important part of keeping children well and helping them to stay that way, but getting children to eat healthy food can be a challenge. Kaiser Permanente San Francisco pediatrician Kim Newell, MD, helps families deal with this conundrum every day. In this preview of her Health Talks podcast “Healthy Eating, Healthy Kids,” Dr. Newell offers some straightforward strategies and tips.

How often do questions about healthy eating come up in your practice?

I get questions about eating during nearly every visit, especially eating too little or too much. About 30 percent of the kids I see are either obese or at risk for obesity.

When it comes to how much your children eat, you’ve got to trust them to eat until they’re full. Use the healthy plate model and put a balanced meal in front of them at regular times of the day, and let them eat as much as they need to satisfy their stomach. The problem is that portion sizes have really skyrocketed, so pay attention to the portions you give your kids.

What’s your advice on choosing healthy food?

Lots of fruits and vegetables are key, and for those of us who choose to serve meat, it should be eaten like a condiment. Meat has delicious flavor, but it shouldn’t be consumed in high volume.

Bay Area food writer Michael Pollan puts it simply: Eat real food, mostly plants, and not too much. If you mostly eat food that your great-great-grandmother would recognize, you’ll be fine.

When you’re looking at pre-made foods, look for a short list of real ingredients. Foods with more than five ingredients often have chemicals and processed ingredients. If the ingredient label reads like a chemistry class, then you probably shouldn’t be eating that food.

Any suggestions for parents with picky eaters?

At about 18 months of age to 2 years old, many kids become extremely particular about what they eat. Many toddlers only eat one good meal every one or two days, and that’s normal. You have to think about their nutrition not in terms of any one meal, but over a whole week.

Parents also need to get creative and find ways to get kids to eat vegetables. Studies show that if you rename vegetables, calling tomatoes ‘moon squirters,’ or broccoli ‘little trees,’ kids are more likely to eat them.

You can also get sneaky and put vegetables in places where kids don’t notice them. Puree onions, zucchini, and spinach to make a turkey burger patty that’s literally half vegetables and tastes delicious. Smoothies are also really great. Start with plain yogurt and a little bit of water or juice, and then you can put in frozen bananas or other frozen fruits plus some spinach, carrots, or a cucumber. Or try adding cooked beets or canned pumpkin.

What are other ways to encourage healthy eating?

Modeling healthy eating is very important. Think about the health habits you want your kids to have, then take them on yourself. It’s a great time to eat more vegetables than you ever have.

Also, as kids get a little bit older, engage them in making food. Both cooking and then eating together as a part of a family meal can be a great way to model the kind of healthy eating behaviors you want your kids to have for the rest of their lives.

For more about helping your children eat healthy, listen to the Health Talks podcast featuring Dr. Newell. You can also download a one-page transcript of this interview (pdf) suitable for printing.