Aim for healthful family meals, snacks

March 21, 2007|by LYNN F. LITTLE

"Eat this; don't eat that."

If only it were so simple. Eating a variety of foods is recommended for health, but trying to overhaul your or your family's eating habits can be a challenge.

Food likes, dislikes and eating habits can date back to a person's childhood. If Daddy didn't like peas, chances are little Seth didn't grow up liking them, either. The good news is that it's never too late to start eating a greater variety of foods that contribute to good health.

Aim for gradual changes, rather than making an issue of food. Strive to plan and provide regular meals and snacks for your family. Some tips to help parents aim for healthy family meals and snacks follow:


· Children have small stomachs, so they need regular meals that are supplemented by snacks to fill the gap between meals. If children know that regular meals and snacks will be provided, they typically are less likely to overeat between meals.

· Shut down snacks one hour before mealtime, so as not to spoil the appetite.

· Make mealtime a family time. Ask the kids to help set the table and encourage them to start learning basic food safety and cooking skills. Visit and click on "cooking class" and/or visit for easy recipes, cooking and food safety tips, and exercise and activity pointers.

· Serve food family-style to allow each family member to choose a portion that matches their appetite. While it's true that an 8-year-old might load up on mashed potatoes or some other favorite food, children typically model parents' behaviors. If parents choose moderate-size servings of a variety of foods, kids usually will follow suit. Also, if children know food will be available, they might be less likely to overeat.

If a child is hesitant to try a new food, don't force the issue. Wait a few weeks and serve it again, perhaps in a different form.

· Offer milk or water, not soft drinks, at meals.

· Dessert? A sweet treat can please and need not be high in calories and fat. Fruit, low-fat yogurt or a cookie often can satisfy without adding too many extra calories.

· Forget about the Clean Plate Club. Children typically eat when hungry and stop eating when they are full.

· To help children learn to gauge portions, compare recommended serving sizes with everyday objects, such as an apple, which is about the size of a baseball; two tablespoons of peanut butter, which together are about the size of a golf ball; an ounce of cheese, which is about the size of a 9-volt battery; and a regular pancake, which is about the size of a CD.

· Consider using some prepackaged single servings to help family members gauge serving size. To trim time and perhaps costs, make your own prepackaged single servings. You can make this a family project.

· Eating out? Must have french fries? To trim calories, fat and the cost, share an order of fries, rather than ordering individual servings. Ordering from the children's or a lunch menu that offers smaller servings, or even sharing an entre, can trim calories, fat and expense.

Sometimes getting your kids to eat healthful foods might seem like a challenge. However, the food habits that your kids develop can make a big difference in their health and weight now and in the future.

Lynn F. Little is a family and consumer sciences educator with Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County.

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