Every Bite Counts – Getting Children to Eat Well

Elizabeth Somer, MA, RD


Published on

09 October 2017


The only place your children get the building blocks to grow healthy bodies and brains is from their diets. There is no other place. That means every bite counts as an opportunity to build strong, healthy bodies.

Never fear. Feeding your child right might seem like one of life's greatest challenges, but it's a lot easier than you think, if you follow a few simple rules:

Rule No. 1 – Accept that it is your job to supply your children with a wide variety of nutritious foods from the four food groups.

  1. Colorful fruits and vegetables
  2. 100% whole grains
  3. Low-fat milk products
  4. Protein-rich meats or beans

They also need a regular source of DHA omega-3 found in fatty fish. It is your child’s responsibility what and how much they eat of those foods. This eliminates the food wars and takes the pressure off both the parent and the child.

Rule No. 2 – Model the behavior you want to nurture in your children. You must eat and love vegetables if you want your child to do the same.

Rule No. 3 – Stock the kitchen with nutritious foods and limit or remove the candy, potato chips, soda pop and highly processed, low-quality items. Left with only nutritious foods, your child will choose a healthy diet.

DHA Omega-3

While all 40+ essential nutrients are important for growing bodies, some nutrients stand out as super stars during the growing years. For example, the omega-3 fat DHA is critical for brain development. (1-4) An ongoing study from the University of Oxford found that low blood levels of this fat were associated with below average reading ability, while a subgroup of children who were well nourished in DHA showed up to a 50 percent improvement in reading scores and improved behavior at home. (5,6)

The main dietary source for DHA is fatty fish, such as salmon or tuna. If these aren’t on your child’s “favorite food” list, look for foods and beverages that contain DHA omega-3, including select milk, soymilk and eggs. Read labels carefully for the words DHA, fish oil, or algal-DHA to ensure you’re getting DHA omega-3.

Besides including a glass or carton of DHA-fortified milk at most meals, you also can sneak more DHA into your child’s diet by:

  1. Cooking oatmeal, brown rice, and other grains in DHA-fortified milk
  2. Making homemade yogurt using DHA-fortified milk or soymilk
  3. Switching from chicken to canned salmon when making sandwiches.
  4. Mixing salmon into tacos, burritos and seafood chowders

If you don’t think your little ones are getting enough of this important nutrient, you may want to consider having them take a supplement.

Antioxidants to the Rescue

Another group of nutrients, called antioxidants, are critical for growing bodies and brains. The best dietary sources are colorful fruits and vegetables.

Why antioxidants? We all need oxygen. But, along with it comes little oxygen fragments, called oxidants or free radicals.  These highly reactive compounds damage developing cells, from head to toe.

The antioxidants in colorful fruits and vegetables, from vitamin C and beta carotene to the 1,000s of phytonutrients, help protect your child’s body and brain from this oxidative damage. The more color-rich produce your child eats, the better. Kids who eat the most broccoli, sweet potatoes, spinach, or other deep-colored produce, maintain the highest blood levels of antioxidants. They also score highest on memory tests, exhibit the best judgement and reasoning, maintain a youthful ability to learn new tasks, perform better at school, are less prone to colds and infections, and are at lower risk for disease later in life.  (7-25)

If your child is a bit finicky when it comes to vegetables:

  1. Try fresh fruits. They're packed with the same vitamins and minerals as vegetables. For example, a handful of dried apricots have the same or more vitamin A and iron as a half cup of cooked mustard greens. Often a chin-dribbling strawberry or orange slice is more tempting than a green bean.
  2. Serve vegetables in different ways. If your child won't eat steamed carrots, try serving baby carrots with a dip or shredded carrots in a taco. Keep portions small at first, such as 2 baby carrots or a teaspoon of grated carrots.
  3. Add vegetables to your child's favorite foods. For example, add green peas to canned chicken noodle soup and blueberries in pancakes. 
  4. Use your child's sweet tooth to your advantage. Drizzle a little maple syrup over baked winter squash or top ice cream with fresh fruit rather than chocolate syrup.

The Bottom Line

Your child doesn't need to eat perfectly at every meal. It's the overall quality of the diet that is most important and, in that case, even finicky eaters usually come out all right. That is, as long as they are choosing from nutritious foods.

A Sample Day’s Menu for Your Child


Whole grain cereal with DHA-fortified milk or soymilk

Bowl of berries


Apple slices dunked in fruited yogurt


Peanut Butter Candy Sandwich: Blend peanut butter with toasted wheat germ and a touch of honey. Spread on 100% whole wheat bread.


Carton of DHA-fortified chocolate milk


Mini-Pizza: Toast half of a 100% whole-grain English muffin, top with bottled spaghetti sauce and grated cheese, and broil until the cheese bubbles.

Glass of orange juice


Roast chicken

Mashed baked sweet potato

Green peas

Dessert: Whipped Cream Mountain: A parfait glass layered with different colored fruits and topped with a dollop of low-fat whipped cream and a cherry.


1. Gispert-Llau7rado M, Perez-Garcia M, Escribano J, et al: Fish consumption in mid-childhood and its relationship to neuropsychological outcomes measured in 7-9 year old children using a NUTRIMENTHE neuropsychological battery. Clinical Nutrition 2016;35:1301-1307.

2. Parietta N, Niyonsenga T, Duff J: Omega-3 and omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acid levels and correlations with symptoms in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autistic spectrum disorder and typically developing controls. PLoS One 11:e0156432.

3. Forsyth S, Gautier S, Salem N: The importance of dietary DHA and ARA in early life. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society 2017;March 13:1-6.

4. Tesei A, Crippa A, Ceccarelli S, et al: The potential relevance of docosahexaenoic acid and eicosapentaenoic acid to the etiopathogenesis of childhood neuropsychiatric disorders. European Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 2016;December 17th.

5. Montgomery P, Burton J, Sewell R, et al: Low blood long chain omega-3 fatty acids in UK children are associated with poor cognitive performance and behavior. PLoS One 2013;8:e66697.

6. Richardson A, Burton J, Sewell R, et al: Docosahexaenoic acid for reading, cognition and behavior in children aged 7-9 years. PLoS 2012;7:e43909.

7. Meydani M: Antioxidants and cognitive function. Nutrition Reviews 2001;59:S75-S80.         

8. Mayne S: Antioxidant nutrients and cancer incidence and mortality: An epidemiologic perspective. Advances in Pharmacology 1997;38:657-675.

9. Nothlings U, Schulze M, Welkert C, et al: Intake of vegetables, legumes, and fruit, and risk for all-cause, cardiovascular and cancer mortality in a European diabetic population. Journal of Nutrition 2008;138:775-781.

10. Martin A, Cherubini A, Andres-Lacueva C, et al: Effects of fruits and vegetables on levels of vitamins E and C in the brain and their association with cognitive performance. Journal of Nutrition and Healthy Aging 2002;6:392-404.

11. Cao G, Sofie E, Prior R: Antioxidant capacity of tea and common vegetables. Journal of Agricultural Food Chemistry 1996;44:3426-3431.

12. Engelhart M, Geerlings M, Ruitenberg A, et al: Dietary intake of antioxidants and risk of Alzheimer disease. Journal of the American Medical Association 2002;287:3223-3229.    

13. Halvorsen B, Carlsen M, Phillips K, et al: Content of redox-active compounds (i.e., antioxidants) in foods consumed in the United States. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2006;84:95-135.

14. Morris M, Evans D, Bienias J, et al: Dietary intake of antioxidant nutrients and the risk of incident Alzheimer disease in a biracial community study. Journal of the American Medical Association 2002;287:3230-3237.

15. Morris M, Evans D, Tangney C, et al: Associations of vegetable and fruit consumption with age-related cognitive change. Neurology 2006;67:1370-1376.

16. Rice-Evans C, Miller N, Bolwell P, et al: The relative antioxidant activities of plant-derived polyphenolic flavonoids. Free Radical Research 1995;22:375-383.

17. Wu X, Beecher G, Holden J, et al: Lipophilic and hydrophilic antioxidant capacities of common foods in the United States. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 2004;52:4026-4037.

18. https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2014/p0805-fruits-vegetables.html

19. Johnson E: Role of lutein and zeaxanthin in visual and cognitive function throughout the lifespan. Nutrition Reviews 2014;72:605-612.

20. Nyaradi A, Foster J, Hickling S, et al: Prospective associations between dietary patterns and cognitive performance during adolescence. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 2014;55:1017-1024.

21. Nyaradi A, Li J, Hickling, et al: A Western dietary pattern is associated with poor academic performance in Australian adolescents. Nutrients 2015;7:2961-2982.

22. Burrows T, Goldman S, Olson R, et al: Associations between selected dietary behaviours and academic achievement. Appetite 2017;116:372-380.

23. Nyaradi A, Li J, Foster J, et al: Good-quality diet in the early years may have a positive effect on academic achievement. Acta Paediatric 2016;105:e209-e218.

24. Rajendran P, Nandakumar N, Rengarajan T, et al: Antioxidants and human diseases. Clinica Chimica Acta 2014;436:332-347.

25. https://www.healthykids.nsw.gov.au/kids-teens/eat-more-fruit-and-vegies-kids.aspx 

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