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Improve diet, health without making food an issue

April 30, 2008|By LYNN LITTLE

Fast food restaurants are offering low-calorie, low-fat choices, but there's no guarantee that children, teens or others with or without a weight problem will choose them.

It is important to help young people make the connection between food, nutrition, energy and health. Nutrition education is one key to reducing obesity, and it is beneficial for a family to learn together. Here are some tips:

· Take the time to read food labels and learn more about what you are eating and about recommended serving sizes (also called portions).

· Serve a variety of foods, but introduce change gradually. Kids might be unhappy if parents eliminate all of the family's favorite snack foods in one fell swoop.

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· Model healthy eating, but don't make food an issue. If kids turn up their noses at a new vegetable, wait a few weeks and offer it again, perhaps in a different form such as part of a veggie combo or stir-fry, one-dish meal.

· Plan snacks to supplement meals and make them available.

· Make it easy for children to choose health-promoting foods. Kids like finger foods and will choose precut fruits and vegetables and a low-fat dip when they are readily available.

· Prepackaged single servings are pleasing to children and helpful in teaching and practicing portion control. Single servings might cost more, but buying in bulk and measuring servings into reusable food storage containers will trim the cost. Fruit and vegetable snacks - an apple, orange, banana, carrot or stalk of celery - are natural single servings.

· Schedule regular meals. If children know that food will be available, they might be less likely to overdo snacks.

· Eat at home to trim calories and fat, reduce sodium intake and lower overall food cost. Whether from scratch or speed-scratch, in which convenience foods are combined with ingredients on hand to save time cooking, food prepared at home usually costs less than similar foods served at a restaurant. Cooking as a family can be creative and fun. It also can provide a boost to self-confidence. Cooks at any age typically take pride in saying, "I made this." Visit www.eatsmart.umd.edu and click on "cooking class" for healthy cooking ideas and ways to cook with kids.

· Serve milk or water with meals and limit carbonated or other high-calorie beverages that offer little, if any, nutritional value for an occasional treat. Purchasing smaller-sized servings of carbonated beverages also can help reduce soft-drink consumption.

· Learn to bank calories for special occasions. Choosing health-promoting foods doesn't have to mean saying goodbye to an occasional cookie or piece of pie. Allowing yourself an occasional treat that is higher in calories and fat than foods normally consumed can be part of a healthy eating plan. If you consume more calories and fat one day, adjust eating to balance food choices, calories and nutrition over the next day or two.

· Trust children who are learning to make healthy food choices at home to make the same or similar choices away from home. Once children, teens and people at any age, for that matter, begin choosing foods that contribute to health, they are likely to experience a greater sense of well being. They may have more energy; be more alert in school or on the job or have a healthier weight. Such results support making healthy food choices a habit.

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

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