It’s tough to know if your kids are eating right, especially when everyone serves up different advice. Is jarred baby food healthier than homemade? Will sweetening vegetables prevent your toddler from ever eating them plain? To separate the truth from the hype, we asked top nutrition experts for the lowdown on the most common food myths.
Myth: If your bottle-fed baby is constipated, you should switch to a low-iron formula.
Fact: The amount of iron in formula doesn’t affect an infant’s bowel functions. In fact, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, giving low-iron formulas to a baby could lead to anemia, a deficiency in red blood cells that can result in learning delays down the road. Although breast milk contains little iron (the reason low-iron formulas were originally introduced decades ago), the small quantities that are in it can be easily absorbed by an infant’s digestive tract. The iron in formula, however, is not as readily absorbed, so more must be added to ensure that babies get enough, says M. Edward Keenan, M.D., an assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. If your baby seems constipated, discuss adding a little fruit juice to his diet with his pediatrician.
Myth: When you introduce solids, use jarred food because it’s healthier.
Fact: Jarred baby food is convenient and healthy, "but it doesn’t contain any nutritional magic," says Ellyn Satter, author of Child of Mine: Feeding With Love and Good Sense. Although it’s more work, it’s just as healthy to start a baby older than 6 months on homemade foods (before then, just breast milk or formula is appropriate). "And giving your baby a taste of your meals will introduce her to new flavors and may make her more curious about food," says Satter.
At first, try cooked, pureed apples, pears, peaches, carrots, corn, green beans, potatoes, or peas. You can also mash ripe bananas and avocados. By the time she’s 9 months old, your baby can eat fish, chicken, turkey, beef, and soy foods that have been chopped up in a food processor.
However, do not serve canned soups, processed meats, or frozen entrees to children under age 1, since high-sodium foods are hard for them to digest, says William Dietz, M.D., a pediatrician and the director of the division of Nutrition and Physical Activity at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in Atlanta. You should also stick to jarred rather than homemade spinach, beets, collard greens, and squash until your child is 8 months old, since homemade versions can contain nitrates, which, in rare cases, may impair the ability of a baby’s blood to carry oxygen to tissues.
Myth: It’s not healthy for kids to eat red meat and eggs regularly.
Fact: You may need to cut back on eating red meat and eggs, but your child doesn’t. They’re an excellent source of protein, and provide plenty of iron and zinc, essential nutrients for growing children, says Dr. Dietz.
While it’s healthy to serve red meat and eggs a few times a week, skip the fast-food hamburger. Instead, grill burgers at home or make meatballs. If you’re going to offer eggs, only prepare cooked (rather than runny) yolks, and to reduce allergy risks don’t serve the whites until age 1.
Myth: If your child rejects a food, there’s no point in serving it again.
Fact: Research shows that a toddler may have to try a new food 15 times before she’ll eat more than a spoonful. So when your 2-year-old spits out your homemade lasagna, don’t take it personally. Her reaction may be more surprise than dislike. Serve it again — she may astonish you by loving it.
It’s good to offer new foods as many times as you can — just be willing to take no for an answer. To cut back on everyone’s frustration, serve new dishes along with old favorites, such as milk, rice, bread, or noodles: Your child won’t leave the table hungry, and you won’t constantly have to pop up and prepare her something special to eat.
Myth: Children prefer to eat exactly the same foods over and over.
Fact: If your child has ever gone on a food jag, refusing to eat anything except pasta or pancakes for weeks on end, you might think that this is true. And children do enjoy eating some (usually white) foods repeatedly. But they also have a strong instinct to experience new flavors. "The more variety a child is offered, the more she’ll eat," says Roberts.
So prepare new vegetables, fruits, and meats in different ways, and your child may be more inclined to eat them: Toss chicken into a salad, sprinkle cheese or dressing on top of broccoli, or add carrots to spaghetti sauce.
Myth: Introduce veggies before fruits, or he’ll get used to the sweet taste of fruits and refuse vegetables.
Fact: There’s no evidence that offering fruits first will discourage children from eating vegetables, says Susan Roberts, Ph.D., author of Feeding Your Child for Lifelong Health. But no matter what you offer first, introduce any new food slowly: Try a different one every three to four days, and then monitor your baby to make sure he doesn’t develop a rash or an upset stomach — signs of an allergy.
Myth: Kids don’t need supplements.
Fact: It’s often been thought that a healthy diet supplies a child with all essential nutrients, but according to one study, more than 50 percent of American children fall short on at least one vitamin or mineral, and 11 percent are slightly anemic. So talk to your doctor about giving your child a multivitamin/multimineral supplement. If he thinks she needs one, buy one that offers between 50 and 150 percent of the Daily Value of nutrients that 2- to 4-year-olds require.
Myth: Limit how much your child eats so he doesn’t become overweight.
Fact: Young children are good at regulating their food intake, so portion control is likely to backfire, says Dr. Dietz. If kids routinely go hungry, they learn to stuff themselves whenever unrestricted amounts of food are available — a habit that can result in weight problems later on.
For an overweight child, serve limited quantities of highly caloric foods, like macaroni and cheese, at mealtimes, but extra helpings of fruits and vegetables, so he can still leave the table feeling satisfied, says Dr. Dietz. And find ways to get him to exercise.
Myth: If you sweeten your child’s vegetables, eventually she won’t eat them any other way.
Fact: Vegetables help protect against cancer and heart disease, and you should encourage your child to eat them any way you can, says Roberts. And if she gets into the habit of having them regularly, she may start to like them plain once she’s older.
So feel free to top sweet potatoes, yams, and squash with marshmallows, or sprinkle peas and green beans with a teaspoon of sugar. You can also use the same tactic with tart fruits — slice up a kiwi or pineapple and cover it with colored sprinkles. Such small amounts of sugar won’t contribute to a sweet tooth, if offered with healthy foods rather than with cakes.
When it comes to feeding your child, remember there’s room to make mistakes, says Roberts: "We all do our best, and our best is good enough."
Robert Barnett is the father of a 4-year-old and a coauthor of Volumetrics, a book on weight loss.