Helping kids develop good eating habits

April 14, 1998|By Lynn F. Little

The messages are everywhere. Commercials for fat-filled, sugary snacks, rows of candy bars at check-out counters of grocery and variety stores and fast-food restaurants on nearly every corner. Even the youngest child is exposed each day to the lure of a low-nutrient, high-fat diet. How can nutrition-conscious parents or care givers compete?

Children learn by example. Whether you are a parent, care giver or teacher, your good example at home, in the grocery store, in the kitchen or at the table is one of the best ways to promote healthy eating habits in children. In fact, healthy eating practices are much easier to maintain when they are developed early. Many adult health problems, including cancer and heart disease, are linked to early dietary patterns.

Here are some ideas for making good nutrition a family affair:

* Keep nutritious foods on hand for snacks and regular meals.

* Fresh fruit, sliced raw vegetables, whole-grain bagels, English muffins and low-fat yogurt are excellent alternatives to chips and cookies.


* Don't insist children clean their plates. Encourage them to try a small portion of new foods when they are served. With repeat exposure, children get used to new foods. Children are more likely to accept a new food when they have learned about it before trying it. Allowing children to help prepare the food is rewarding. Children are much more likely to try new foods they have made.

* Help children learn to eat at regular times and recognize when they are full. Avoid using food as a reward, bribe or a solution to boredom. Each child will have a different appetite, so it's important to remember that each child knows best how much he or she wants to eat.

Suggested serving sizes will meet the nutritional needs of the average child, but these guidelines should not be used to force an amount of food on any child or make a child go hungry.

Realize that your child's diet will not be perfect. Don't allow food to become the focal point of a battle of control between you and your child. Encourage your child to replace high-fat snack foods with nutritious alternatives but accept the natural appeal of high-fat foods to your child.

* Appeal to your child's intellect. Young minds are eager to learn, so teach them about the importance of good nutrition. Ask children to help shop for and prepare nutritious foods. The idea of moderation, variety and nutritional balance makes sense to children and teens, especially the idea of balancing occasional fast food with daily nutritious meals at home.

To be sure children eat to meet their nutritional needs, serve a variety of healthful foods. Then children will have lots of good choices to enjoy. The more different foods a child tries, the more likely the child will be to eat everything that's needed for good nutrition.

Maryland Cooperative Extension Service's programs are open to all citizens without regard to race, color, sex, disability, age, religion or national origin.

Lynn F. Little is an extension educator, family and consumer sciences, University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service.

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