Making Family Mealtime Fun for Everyone

We all know that family dinners are important. They give children the opportunity to develop important skills like manners and communication. They encourage healthy eating habits. They help family members connect with one another. And did you know that research shows family meal time is one of the best ways to help children avoid drug abuse?

The trouble is that with our hectic family schedules, and our children’s eating preferences, regular family dinners are often rushed and/or stressful. We begin to dread the idea of dinner time and often scrap the “sit down” idea all together. And then the guilt sets in…

This article from the Goddard School website gives families great ideas for making mealtime more fun and successful.

  • Cut yourself (and your children) some slack– adjust your idea of what “sit-down” means when you are eating with young children. Encourage and talk about manners, but respect young children’s need to be active and to touch their food. For them eating is a complete sensory experience.
  • Make it fun– throw in something unexpected, like purple potatoes, broccoli standing like trees, food arranged into a picture or shape on the plate. Serve milk in little goblets. Get kids excited to see what you will bring to the table.
  • Get everyone involved– ask Dad to make the salad, invite the kids to wash the vegetables. Set the table together and incorporate some of the kids ideas about how to set out the napkins or which plates to use.
  • Explore other eating together options– when time is short, set out healthy appetizers like veggies and hummus, cheese and crackers or other quick finger foods and have a family “happy hour” together. When you know evenings will be busy, plan a family breakfast or lunch.

Family time is important, and when we take the time to be together around a meal, we are also teaching our children the importance of eating right. And while it is nice to slow down, gather everyone around the table and enjoy food and conversation together, don’t let that ideal feel like your only option. The goal is to connect with one another and teach healthy eating habits. The way you can accomplish this can be as unique as your family!

Healthier Snacking for Healthier Kids

A recent study out of the University of North Carolina surveyed 30,000 kids and found that, on average, children snack 3 times a day. Chips, candy and other junk foods now account for 27% of the average child’s daily caloric intake.

More snacking means less appetite at meal times, and while many believe that eating many small meals is healthier than 3 large meals, this is only true if your snack food is as nutritious as your meal-time food. Children today are filling up on unhealthy snacks and then don’t have the appetite to eat their more nutritious meals.

Surprisingly, children between the ages of 2 and 6 showed the biggest increase in snacking. At this age, parents and care givers have a huge influence on the snacks children eat. We are the ones who provide their snack choices.

Here are a few healthy snack ideas:

  • dried fruit and/or nuts (raisins, dried cherries, dried mango slices, etc.)
  • yogurt (add granola, dried coconut, berries or other fruit)
  • baby carrots, sugar snap peas
  • banana wheels or apple wedges with a dab of peanut butter
  • cut fruit or cheese with toothpicks (it’s amazing what kids will eat if they can jab it with a toothpick!)

We are role models for our children. But even if we don’t have the healthiest eating habits, we can always help our kids to do better. Encourage better habits and hope they stick.

For more info on this study and other snack ideas, click here.

What Kind of an Environment is Your Program Providing?

Do you have an answer to these questions? Think about what goes on in your child care program. How do you rate?

  1. Should a 1-year old watch any TV?
  2. Should a 4 year old watch more than 2 hours?
  3. Should a 3 year old spend most of the day doing quiet, sit-down activities?
  4. If a child is misbehaving do you cut back their outdoor play time?
  5. Is juice the best beverage choice for a young child?

If you answered “no” to all of the above questions, give yourself 5 stars and a pat on the back. You’ve got the elements in place to create a healthy environment for young children.

According to an article at, researchers at Oregon State University found that of 300 family child care providers surveyed, most didn’t rate so well.

two-thirds of those caring for children under age 5 have the TV on most of the day…78 percent of the children ages 2 to 5 were not getting enough physical activity and 63 percent had active play or exercise restricted as a punishment.

To me, this is a shame. Family child care homes have the potential to offer some of the best child care environments for young children. The home setting, the small groups, the mixed ages, the care and attention that children receive in these wonderful care environments can often be preferable to the larger, rather industrial style settings of larger child care centers.

It is important that care providers are not only aware of the basic health recommendations for young children, but that they follow those recommendations in the environments that they provide.

Here are some basic recommendations and links to articles with more information:

TV Viewing: Children under age 2 should not watch any TV, children between 2 and 5 years old should watch a maximum of 2 hours a day (American Academy of Pediatrics)

Physical Activity: Children ages 2-5 should get at least 60 minutes of structured physical activity (adult-led activity), at least 60 minutes of unstructured physical activity (free play) and should not be inactive for more than 1 hour at a time, unless sleeping (National Association of Sports and Physical Education)

Juice: juice should be 100% pasteurized fruit juice and not fruit drinks, infants under 6 months of age should not be given juice, children aged 1 to 6 years should have only 4 to 6 ounces of juice a day (American Academy of Pediatrics)

For fun activity ideas that will help you turn off the TV and grow young bodies and minds, check out the activity binders at!

Food Allergies in Children is On the Rise

I’ve noticed a lot more children coming in to preschool classrooms with food allergies. My daughter was one of them. An article in Health Day News previews a new study put on by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that:

the number of children with food allergies has gone up 18 percent and the number seeking treatment for food allergy at emergency departments or hospitals has tripled since 1993.

As my daughter approached her first birthday we realized she had a severe dairy allergy. She developed hives just by touching food with even the slightest amount of milk in it. Even eating food encrusted with store-bought bread crumbs (which usually contain a small amount of buttermilk powder) would cause hives around her mouth. I was most terrified by the hives and swelling I might not be able to see in places like her tongue or throat.

Our entire household had to adjust our eating habits. Going out to dinner felt like playing Russian Roulette. Most of the wait-staff we encountered seemed annoyed by our in-depth questioning of the ingredients in each meal. It became clear that most people thought that a dairy allergy is the same as lactose intolerance, which may cause some indigestion or other less pleasant discomforts, but not any real harm. We learned to bring food with us where ever we went.

Then came time to put our daughter into child care. Again, I stressed the allergy issue, but only when I had to show the teachers how to use the epipen did they take the situation seriously.

My daughter was fortunate to have a very dedicated teacher who attended a workshop for early childhood educators on food allergies in children. She said the workshop completely opened her eyes to the severity of the situation and gave her a new appreciation for the issue. I immediately noticed changes. It was clear that all teachers were now carefully reading food labels. They were learning the hidden terms for dairy like casein and whey. I was able to sleep better at night.

Apparently I am not alone in my experience. This article goes on to state:

Although many people think of allergies as more of a nuisance than a serious health issue, food allergy in particular can be very serious, even life-threatening. The most common foods that people are allergic to include peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, soy, shellfish, fish and wheat, according to the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network.

By the time my daughter turned three, she had completely outgrown her dairy allergy, but her toddler teacher continues to be an advocate for children with food allergies in child care settings.

Here is a link to the Athsma and Allergy Foundation of America New England Chapter. In it you’ll find all kinds of information and tips for parent and child care providers on this important issue.

Worst Foods for Kids

We all know that childhood obesity is a big issue these days. But the crazy schedules of today’s working families make it hard to avoid the quick meal solutions offered by fast food restaurants and the freezer section of the grocery store. If you want to do better for your kids, read on…

A recent article by MSNBC gives some startling information:

The typical burger, soda, and fries that you and I ate as kids contains an average of 214 more calories today than that same meal did in the 1970s — enough to add at least 3 pounds of weight a year to your child’s body, even if he or she ate that fast-food meal just once a week.

The article goes on to highlight the worst foods you can feed your kids, based on calories, fat and nutrition content. The list is pretty comprehensive, including everything from the worst breakfast cereal or packaged snack to the worst chinese food entree. The author explains the reasoning behind each selection and offers a healthier alternative. For example:

Worst PB&J
Atlanta Bread Company Peanut Butter & Jelly
550 calories
15 g fat (3.5 g saturated)
690 mg sodium
34 g sugars

Apparently it’s a bad idea to stick an American classic on French bread. How else could we explain a 550-calorie peanut butter and jelly sandwich? Toss some chips onto that plate and you’ve got a meal that can quickly make a small child big. Make this meal at home instead and you not only save a ton of money, but you can also cut the caloric load by half.

Eat this instead!
Kids Cheese Pizza
300 calories
7 g fat (3.5 g saturated)
660 mg sodium

Anyone who feeds children, either at home or in a child care setting, should have a look at this article. I know you’ll learn something. I did!

Cooking with Toddlers Encourages Sensory Learning

Our senses are the root of all discovering and learning. Toddlers love to actively explore through their senses. It is how they test their learning tools. There is no better way to put the senses to work than through cooking!

When you cook with toddlers, not only to they get to try out ALL of their senses, they also get a meaningful introduction to math (counting and measuring) and science (properties of matter, mixing, observing changes) concepts. On top of that, the conversations that take place around cooking encourage language skills. Watching you follow a written recipe promotes pre-literacy skills. Cooking with others develops social skills and making and eating real, healthy food encourages healthy habits. Clearly, getting toddlers involved in food preparation is worth the effort.

Here are some tips for a successful experience:

  • choose a simple recipe with only a few ingredients.
  • create a safe and easily accessible work space for toddlers away from stove tops and other kitchen hazards.
  • Set out and prepare the ingredients in advance so everything is ready to be scooped or poured immediately.

If you are working with toddlers in a child care setting, you’ll have more success if you don’t force cooking as a group activity. Just set out the ready-to-go cooking materials on a child-sized table, and begin preparing the meal or snack as you would in the kitchen. Those children who are interested can come and help or just watch. Eventually the watchers may become helpers, but children will be more cooperative and you’ll have few issues if you are working only with those who are choosing to be involved.

The same idea is also true for toddlers cooking at home. Everyone will be much happier if the child has chosen to help with the cooking, and is allowed to move on to other things when they are no longer interested.

Here are some ideas for simple foods to cook with toddlers:

  • fruit salad
  • smoothies
  • simple biscuits
  • bread machine breads
  • mashed potatoes (you pre-cook the potatoes and allow them to cool)
  • assembling pizza

If you’ve done some cooking with toddlers, please share your tips and recipe successes!

A Garden Project Grows Young Minds

Large projects are a great way to make learning a fun, real and unforgetable experience for young children. Planning, preparing, planting, tending and harvesting a vegetable garden is a great way to tie in all sorts of important concepts including:

  • plant life cycles
  • living and non living
  • seasonal cycles
  • weather
  • insects
  • food/food groups/nutrition
  • healthy habits

Gardens also tap into children’s energy and natural curiosity. Children learn through their senses, at their own pace and in their own way. Some of the Multiple Intelligences addressed while gardening include:

  • Linguistic– talking about your plans; describing your actions; discussing problems/issues; learning new garden-related vocabulary; keeping a garden journal
  • Logical/Mathematical– counting and sorting seeds; measuring garden space, seed spacing, plant height, rainfall
  • Spatial– planning garden space; drawing pictures of plants as they grow, creating seed markers
  • Kinesthetic– digging, weeding, raking, harvesting
  • Musical– singing garden-related songs; tapping or otherwise keeping a rhythm as you dig or plant; listening to the sounds of nature as you spend time outdoors
  • Interpersonal– working together to prepare soil, add compost, water, harvest food, create snacks or meals, etc.
  • Intrapersonal– quiet, independent time weeding or digging
  • Natural– watching plant cycles and insect life

You don’t need a large outdoor space to create a class garden that can become a season-long project. A small garden plot can keep kids very busy. Several large pots or other planting containers can become a bountiful urban garden. Not only will your children learn a lot, they will also have an opportunity to experience nature and that in itself comes with a host of benefits!