Mealtime messages

Eat as if kids were watching and copying (they are)

Eat as if kids were watching and copying (they are)

April 09, 2008|By LYNN LITTLE

Eating a variety of foods is recommended for health. But trying to overhaul your own or your family's eating habits can be a challenge.

Food likes, dislikes and eating habits might date back to a person's childhood. If daddy didn't like peas, chances are little Seth grew up not liking peas, too.

The good news is that it's never too late to start eating a greater variety of foods that contribute to health. You will be most successful if you aim for gradual changes, rather than making an issue of food.

Try to plan and provide regular meals and snacks. Involve the whole family in healthy habits at snack and meal time.


Consider snacks a valid part of your family's healthy eating plan. 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.

At snack and meal time, limit low-nutrient foods, such as chips or cookies. These foods have little nutrition and are high in calories, sugar and fat. Replace them with a variety of fruits and vegetables as a part of snacks or meals each day. By keeping healthy foods on hand, it will be easier to offer your child healthy options. Shut down snacks one hour before mealtime, so as not to spoil the appetite.

Short on mealtime ideas or snack suggestions? Not feeling confident in the kitchen? Check out and click on "cooking class." You will find information on choosing foods for nutrition and health, cooking, and meal management.

Healthy food habits

Make mealtime a family time. Setting aside a regular time each day to eat and prepare healthy meals will help your children develop healthy habits as they grow. Eating regular meals can help to ensure everyone in your family is getting the nutrition they need.

· Stay regular - Regular meals also will help keep you and your family from overeating. Eating meals together at home usually means a healthier meal for everyone, and you get to enjoy spending time with your family.

· Involve young children in meal prep - Ask the kids to help set the table and encourage them to start learning basic food safety and cooking skills. You can find easy recipes, cooking and food safety tips - also exercise and activity pointers - at You will also find information on cooking with kids at under the "cooking class" link.

· Model good eating habits - Serve food family style to allow family members 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 will usually follow suit. Also, if children know food will be available, they might be less likely to overeat.

· Introduce new foods - If your 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. For example, your child might shy away from drinking vegetable juice, yet eat it in spaghetti sauce.

· Avoid sodas at mealtime - Offer milk or water, not soft drinks, at meals. Kids should drink lowfat milk or water instead of sweetened beverages or soda. Juice and soda can contribute to weight gain and tooth decay.

· Avoid sugary desserts - A sweet dessert treat can please children's palates, but need not be high in calories and fat. Fruit, a cookie or low-fat yogurt can be a satisfying conclusion to a meal without adding too many extra calories.

· Don't force children to eat - Forget about the "Clean Plate Club." Children typically eat when hungry and stop eating when they are full.

One key: serving sizes

To help children learn to gauge portions, compare recommended serving sizes with everyday objects, such as a piece of fruit, 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 nine-volt battery; and a regular pancake, which is about the size of a CD.

Prepackage single servings to help family members gauge serving size. To trim time and perhaps costs, make prepackaging single servings a family project.

Eating out? Crave french fries? To trim calories, fat and expense, share an order of fries, rather than ordering individual servings. Or order from the children's menu or from a lunch menu that offers smaller servings; or share an entre.

Be a role model for your kids and eat healthy. If you eat healthy, it sends a message to your kids about how to eat right.

Getting children to eat healthy 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 Little is a family and consumer sciences educator with University of Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County.

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