I was in the supermarket the other day with my 4-year-old daughter. As we were walking down the dairy aisle, she saw a yogurt with a cartoon character on the container, and she really wanted it.
No big deal, right? Yogurt is healthy. Well, this particular yogurt was filled with added sugar and loaded with calories. Raising nutritionally intelligent children is no easy task, but you have to start them young. How young? I reached out to a few experts to find out.
* When do you start teaching your children about healthy foods?
“Nutrition begins with the parents. Some studies indicate that a child’s taste starts to be established based on what a pregnant women eats,” said Shari Barkin, professor of pediatrics at Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt University.
“Make your baby’s first foods real foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables. Select the foods you most want them to eat as older children and begin these foods early on. This helps children acquire a taste for real, wholesome foods …. Then, when they get into preschool and the real world of junk food, their tastes have already been shaped,” said William Sears, pediatrician and co-author of The Healthiest Kid in the Neighborhood.
* What else can parents do?
“You can teach your children about good nutrition by what you decide to prepare and serve. They learn to eat the same foods that you eat,” said Joanne Sorte, director of the Oregon State University Child Development Center.
You can also stock up on books and DVDs to reinforce the message. For instance, Sesame Workshop has created some great DVDs and a book series called Healthy Habits for Life, including Get Moving with Grover, My Healthy Body, Healthy Foods and Happy Healthy Monsters Head to Toe! They’re all part of the Healthy Monsters series — and they’re great. (visit: www.sesameworkshop.org/healthyhabits)
* How do you encourage preschoolers to try new, healthy foods?
Lead by example, and try and try again. Research has demonstrated that a child may have to try a food up to 15 times before liking it. “It helps to offer new food items relatively frequently. This makes the concept of new food seem routine. It also helps if the new item is introduced alongside familiar and comfortable foods,” suggested Sorte. Also, try preparing the food using different flavors and cooking methods. And sample new foods together as a family in planned taste tests.
* Should you forbid certain “sin” foods (cookies, cake, ice cream, candy, etc.)?
“To tell a child a food is forbidden when we all know it tastes good sends a confusing message,” said Sorte. In fact, she believes that forbidding foods is often an invitation for undue desire. “A better approach is to seek a reasonable balance. Any food can have a place in a healthy diet — when, how much, how often are the decisions of the adult,” she added.
Instead of saying that something is “bad,” tell children about what good foods can do for their bodies. All children want to be strong and healthy. Candy tastes good but doesn’t do anything good for them. You can tell them that sugary treats can cause cavities, and too many treats can cause a tummy ache, said Patti Scott, RN, MSN, a pediatric nurse practitioner from the Vanderbilt School of Nursing.
* What can you do when children go to day care or preschool?
Parents need to express their opinions and concerns to administrators and offer ideas for healthy alternatives. Building good relationships with care providers and discussing the foods children eat will help support your food-family values.
* What about using candy and sweet foods for rewards?
“By using sweet rewards as motivators, adults are pretty much acknowledging that they are out of control of the situation,” said Sorte. Parents need to come up with other options and not fall into the food-reward trap.
Scott offers some alternatives: Playing at the park, fishing (real or imagined, with a bucket, stick and paper fish), story time at the library, making Play-Doh animals, making melon ball “people” (or snowmen or animals), then eating the melon. Stickers or even a nice big hug work, too.
* Should I limit my child’s television viewing?
Research shows that the more your kids watch, the more likely they’ll be overweight. “Commercials add to the hard sell of high-sugar and high-fat foods that put the big ouch into the diet. At the same time, watching lots of television means children are not being active, so it’s a double whammy,” said Sorte. Even if they watch educational programs and/or TV without commercials, they’re still more likely to consume more food and be less active.
* When I take my child to the supermarket and he/she wants unhealthy foods, what should I do?
Learn the art of saying no — no matter what the consequences. Offer alternatives, and make sure not to take your children to the supermarket hungry.
Also, get your child involved. They can make the shopping list, help put things in the cart and learn to identify the healthy foods in the store, said Sorte.
* If my preschooler is overweight, should I put him/her on a diet?
According to Sorte, “The jury is still out.” However, if your preschooler is overweight, you should probably consider make some adjustments.
“Think about the balance of food vs. activity in your child’s life. If food is predominant, make alterations in the family lifestyle: Serve food in smaller amounts overall (keep from cooking more than the family needs for a meal so the idea of second helpings is reduced); offer treats like ice cream in tiny dishes; choreograph slow-paced mealtimes so children have time to feel food working; create a plan for after dinner that does not include TV and use these fun events to distract children from food and inactivity.”
Charles Stuart Platkin is a nutrition and public health advocate, author of The Diet Detective’s Count Down (Simon & Schuster, 2007) and founder of DietDetective.com, the health and fitness network. Copyright 2007 by Charles Stuart Platkin. Sign up for the free Diet Detective newsletter at www.DietDetective.com.