Raising a Healthy Eater:
Tips from a Family Nutritionist

For this week’s installment of our Expert series, we’re doing a Q&A with Jennifer Stimson, MS, RD, ICBLC, a Registered Dietitian focused on kid & family nutrition in the SF Bay Area.  We are thrilled to share with you her insights on topics ranging from basic baby and kid nutrition to baby-led weaning to how to deal with picky eaters!

Q: Let’s begin by talking about infants.  According to the CDC, 4 out of 5 moms start out breastfeeding, however by 6 months only about 1/2 are still breastfeeding, and by 12 months it’s down to 1/3.  Since so many moms want to breastfeed, do you have any advice for moms so that they can meet their breastfeeding goals?

A: That’s a great question!  When you are pregnant it’s a good idea to do your homework.  Find and choose a breastfeeding-friendly health care team (OB/GYN or midwife and pediatrician) and hospital/birth center — a baby-friendly hospital is ideal.  Also locate other resources such as lactation specialists and breastfeeding support groups.  Take a breastfeeding class.

If you are returning to work talk to your boss about accommodations for pumping. Make sure you get a great pump such as the Medela Pump in Style.  The Medela Quick Clean Microsteam bags are life-savers for easily sterilizing pump parts.  Use of a hands-free pumping bra is also a huge time-saver — you can write emails while pumping!

KellyMom.com, your local La Leche League, and Pacify (an app that links parents with pediatric experts such as IBCLCs) are all fantastic resources.

Q: OK, starting solids.  The conventional wisdom these days seem to be moving away from rice cereal and toward going straight to whole foods at 6+ months.  Also, baby-led weaning (BLW) is very popular these days.  Any thoughts on these trends from a nutritional standpoint?

A: Baby-led weaning consists of starting with solid food — generally at six months old.  Finger foods are used to a greater degree than spoon feeding pureed foods.

Baby-led weaning if fine as long as you are mindful of the foods that are most prone to choking hazards such as whole grapes, chunks of hot dogs, melted cheese, etc.  A positive aspect of baby-lead weaning is that the child may be able to learn to self-regulate food intake better (since they are not being spoon fed by a parent).  

For conventional pureees, you are correct that there is less of a rigid pattern of starting with rice cereal first.  Anything that is easy to eat with softer textures can pretty be used so many types of fruits and vegetables.  For example, avocado, banana, and sweet potato all make great first foods for baby.  Note that if there is a family history of food allergies check with your pediatrician or allergist prior to introducing them.

Q: So many kids have food allergies these days!  Any guidance on the best time to introduce potential allergies (e.g. milk, eggs, peanuts/tree nuts, soy, wheat) in order to minimize the chances of long-term issues?

A: The most current recommendations are to not restrict potentially allergenic foods in a breastfeeding mother’s diet as a way to prevent food allergies.  Once a child has shown tolerance to foods at 4-6 months old then potentially allergenic foods can be introduced, however it is best to introduce these at home and watch for reactions.  For children at high risk their pediatrician or allergist should be consulted prior to introduction of these foods.

Q: Any tips for picky eaters?  When they refuse healthy, balanced meals, should we let them starve or should we crumble and serve them mac ‘n’ cheese every night?

A: Parents tend to really worry about picky eating, which I can completely understand.  But I would say, if an otherwise healthy child has a BMI (body mass index) in the normal range and/or following their own growth curve there is usually not a problem.  So I would say to try to help meals be enjoyable.  Relax a little.

Ellyn Satter is a well-known dietitian who contends that it is the parent’s responsibility to offer health food and the child’s responsibility to eat it.  Parents do not need to be short-order cooks.  Why would you want to cook two meals?  That’s not fair to you.  Instead ensure that there is at least something at the dinner table that your child enjoys whether it be fresh fruit or whole grain bread.  

Also, no force feeding or bribing with food!

Q: Realistically, most families don’t have the time or energy to home cook every meal.  What are some of your favorite quick-prep meal ideas or prepared/boxed meal products? 

A: You can boost the nutrition of boxed macaroni and cheese with healthful additions.  I add either riced cauliflower, which you can get frozen, or dried red lentils.  My 5-year old son does not even notice.  His friends have but then they just go ahead and eat it. I never “hide” these things but I also do not advertise that I have added them.  They are part of my “secret” recipe!

Another super-fast meal is to make tostadas.  I use boxed or canned refried beans reheated in the microwave.  Stick some corn tortillas under the broiler and then slather on the beans.  Add whatever else you like: sour cream, salsa, cheese, shredded cabbage.  The nice thing about this one is that it’s a nice family-style meal.  You can put all the accompaniments on the table and family members can add whatever they want.  It exposes children to different foods without forcing them to try them.

Q: What are some of your favorite healthy snacks to take on-the-go?  (And how bad are prepackaged snacks like puffs, yogurt melts, and graham crackers, really?!)

A: Boxed raisins, popcorn and fresh fruit are great on-the-go snacks for preschoolers.  Nut butters and whole grain crackers are great, too.   

In terms of puffs, graham crackers, and the like, they really don’t have much to offer nutritionally.  Here is just one article I saw recently about how the vast majority of prepackaged snacks fall short on nutrition, despite significant marketing messaging to the contrary.  For my family I try to make a habit of not having snacks like these in the house.  Now that my son is older those types of foods are everywhere so I don’t want them in the house on top of them being elsewhere in his environment.
So I guess I would say: Snacks like these are just not needed for babies — they need to experience real food.  And for older children, it is better to give them snack such as yogurts, cheese sticks, fresh fruit and maybe whole grain crackers…maybe some lower sugar granola bars.
Q: When would you suggest a family seek out the help of a dietitian?  What can parents expect of working with a dietitian such as yourself?

A: If parents have major concerns about picky eating, foods allergies, or if there are weight issues it is a good idea to consult a dietitian.  A registered dietitian can help you weed through the murky waters of nutrition misinformation and provide sound, easy-to-follow nutrition advice.

Below is a glimpse of Jennifer’s curated list with her favorite foods for great kid nutrition.  To read her commentary on each item, click through to view her full list on TotScoop!

About Jennifer Stimson, MS, RC, ICBLC:


Jennifer provides professional, credible expertise that is evidence-based and highly researched.  She has a decade of experience working with children and families. With dual degrees (a Master’s in Nutrition and a Bachelor’s in Psychology) she is well-equipped with both a science-based background in the complex study of human metabolism and a behavioral approach to nutrition counseling.  Learn more about her services at JenniferStimsonNutrition.com.