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Help children learn to choose healthy foods

August 15, 2007|By LYNN LITTLE

Most parents know that certain foods can be particularly important to their children's growth and health. Getting their children to eat the healthful foods might not, however, always be easy.

Start early if you still can. For example, a whole-grain, low-sugar cereal is likely to be welcomed by a toddler. The crunchy cereal will please the toddler; the absence of sugar also will benefit the toddler's dental health and appetite for more nutritious foods. Once a child is old enough to make independent food choices, continue to offer healthy foods.

Plan meals and snacks. Families who plan meals might find it easier to include more variety. Planning meals also alleviates last-minute stresses so everyone is likely to be in a better mood at mealtime.

Snacks are important, particularly for children, who have small stomachs. They need to eat (refuel) regularly. Adults who plan snacks are less likely to overeat.

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Avoid offering foods that provide "empty" calories. For example, serve milk or water at mealtime or snack time, rather than sugary juice mixes or carbonated beverages.

Set a good example. When parents enjoy foods without focusing on them or overemphasizing them, children learn to enjoy them, too.

Encouraging children to try new foods is not as difficult as it might seem. If a child turns up his nose at an unfamiliar food, it's best not to make an issue out of it. Plan to offer the food again, perhaps in a different form. For example, if vegetables are an issue, parents might want to add tomato juice or vegetable cocktail to soups or sauces.

Offer appropriate portions. For toddlers and preschoolers, allow about one tablespoon for each year of age. While activity fuels the appetite, insisting that children clean their plates can be detrimental to their health. Children usually stop eating when they are full.

Allow for an occasional treat. A cookie or two or small dessert is OK occasionally, but it's not nutritionally sound to make a meal of chocolate cake or corn chips.

Rethink the family meal. If eating dinner together is too difficult, think about designating breakfast as the family meal. Eating together can provide time to share plans and activities for the day, and family members can offer moral support or encouragement.

Eating meals together usually slows the process. While that can aid digestion, it also can contribute to improving table manners and conversational skills.

Share the responsibility. Getting involved in meal preparation can help children learn about food. They also can learn math and science in the kitchen. Even small children like to measure and mix.

Starting early to help your children learn to make healthy food choices is a good idea, but it's never too late to start, as nutrition and health are important at any age.

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

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