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Aim for healthy family meals, snacks

March 20, 2012|Lynn 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. 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 healthful family meals and snacks follow: 

Children have small stomachs, so they need regular meals, supplemented by snacks to help 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. Go to EatSmart.umd.edu and click on "cooking class" for easy recipes, cooking, and food safety tips. 

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 will usually follow suit. Also, if children know a certain 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. Serve it again in a few weeks, perhaps in a different form. 

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

Dessert? A sweet treat might please, but need not be high in calories and fat.  Fruit, 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 a medium apple, which is about the size of a baseball; 2 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. 

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 entrée, 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 children 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 Extension in Washington County.

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