Start Early!

Parents may not realize that the foods they offer early on can influence a child's eating habits later in life.
Parents may not realize that the foods they offer early on can influence a child's eating habits later in life. Sandy Procter, Kansas State University Research and Extension nutrition specialist, says that in a restaurant she recently witnessed a mother who dipped an infant pacifier into a carbonated beverage before replacing it in her fussy child's mouth.

Infants have a natural preference for sweet foods -- that's one reason they usually like carrots, which are naturally sweet.

"In this case, soothing a child with a sweet can reinforce a preference for sweetness, which may influence food choices later in life," Procter says.

Food as reward
Offering food as a reward is not recommended, either, she said.

An occasional mistake need not doom a child to a lifetime of poor eating habits or health, the nutrition specialist said. Optimal nutrition involves an ongoing series of choices, starting with our mother's nutritional status before our birth and continuing throughout life. As adults, we make many of those early choices for our children, she says.

Parents typically do the grocery shopping and that allows them to pick and choose foods that are offered at home, says Procter, who offers this advice to parents:

Take time to read labels. Learn to recognize ingredients in the foods you choose, whether they occur naturally or are added in processing. Ask yourself: Does this product offer any health benefits?

Take time in introducing new foods, but don't fuss over the new food. Be a good role model. If a child sees a parent enjoying the food, he or she will be likely to enjoy it, too.

"It is important that our children see us choosing a variety of food and making healthy choices often," Procter says.

Measure out standard serving sizes until you become familiar with them. "Portion distortion -- a serving that is double or triple the norm -- is a factor in weight management and health," she adds.

Don't eat directly from a bag or box. Doing so is likely to mean eating more than a standard -- or recommended -- serving.

Does monitoring your children's food mean "NO treats?" Not at all, she said. In fact, it's unlikely that a parent will be able to shield his or her child from highly advertised foods that often are less healthful, she says.

For those with no special dietary restrictions, all foods, in moderation, can usually be part of a healthy eating plan, Procter says.

The trick is in teaching children to enjoy a variety of foods. Nutrition professionals describe doing so as part of developing 'eating competency,' but what it really means to parents is hearing a child say: "No thank you. I'm full" when he or she turns down an extra helping or unneeded snack, the nutrition specialist says.

"It's never too late to improve eating habits," says Procter, who noted, however, that change may be easier to accomplish when children are young.

"Don't hesitate to introduce new foods. Make the new foods -- or familiar foods prepared in a new way -- available, but don't make them an issue," Procter says.

Touting the health benefits of this or that food is likely to go right by a teen. Adolescents think heart disease or cancer won't happen to them.

"Focus on the positive, particularly when it relates to appearance or performance (in the classroom, in sports or other competition, such as debate or forensics): "How about some oatmeal this morning to boost your energy level and brain power."

Maintaining a routine -- rather than skipping meals -- is important for children at any age. Knowing they can count on regular meals will help them put food in perspective, Procter says.


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