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Raising Healthy Eaters
January 2011
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How to Train Children’s Palates from the Cradle On

raising_healthy_eatersAmerica is in the midst of an epidemic of childhood obesity that is creating a health crisis for our kids.

According to the Nestlé Nutrition Institute’s often referenced Feeding Infant and Toddler Study (FITS), many U.S. children are eating a poor quality diet too high in calories and too low in nutrition. About one in three older babies and toddlers are not eating a single vegetable on a given day, and eating habits don’t improve as children get older.

Today’s typical American diet is clearly not working. According to a benchmark National Cancer Institute study, only 1 percent of all children between the ages of 2 and 19 years met all requirements of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Guide Pyramid. Sixteen percent of the children met none of the pyramid recommendations. In 2010, the American Dietetic Association (ADA) reported that upwards of 23 million U.S. children and adolescents are now overweight or obese and currently at risk for other health problems associated with obesity. That’s nearly one in three children.

Early Training

Nationwide efforts to address these health issues have demonstrated that early prevention is easier than intervention after problems have taken hold. Parents can begin cultivating healthy eating habits in their children right from the cradle. Establishing a few key parental practices can have long-ranging benefits for the family.

The first tip is to keep a neutral attitude about food, even if it’s counterintuitive. When introducing solids to a child, it is helpful to present the foods in a relaxed, neutral way, with no pressure to eat them. As the youngster grows, avoid labeling certain foods as good, bad or even healthy to sidestep the response, “This is good for me? I don’t like it!”

Parents do well to remain patient. It can take up to 15 presentations before a child is willing to try something new, and then several tastings before they decide they like it.

It also helps to offer a variety of flavors from a very young age to familiarize children with many dimensions of tastes and textures. Though babies initially prefer sweet tastes above all others, as youngsters grow, their preferences tend toward what is familiar. When introduced early on to variety and consistently offered healthy whole foods, including all the veggies, these come to comprise their preferred diet.

Continuing Practices

It’s always wise to offer food to children only when they are actually hungry. When kids eat a continuous flow of simple carbohydrates, such as white crackers and sweetened cereals or even 100 percent juices, it keeps their blood sugar levels slightly elevated, which can create problems.

Nutritionists see first-hand how such a diet prevents the true hunger signal from turning on fully, which in turn can cause little ones to act finicky about certain foods, especially vegetables. It can also prompt them to eat less of more nutritionally balanced foods on their plate at mealtimes.

In children who have any type of blood sugar sensitivity, the more sweet foods they eat, the more they will tend to want. If a parent wants to offer a sweet snack, include some additional fiber, protein or healthy fat to balance it, since these nutrients act as a time-release mechanism for sugars and will help to regulate a more natural appetite rhythm.

According to the ADA’s Pediatric Manual of Clinical Dietetics, vegetarian children tend to be leaner than their non-vegetarian peers, it doesn’t mean that simply eliminating meat is a recipe for obesity prevention. According to the American Dietetic Association, a varied and appropriately planned vegetarian diet can meet all of a growing baby and toddler’s nutritional needs. But it is even more crucial to keep the blood sugar levels balanced in vegetarian toddlers, because they aren’t receiving proteins from animal sources. On the plus side, young vegetarians are more likely to eat a broader range of fiber and micronutrient-rich fruits, veggies and beans.

To encourage reluctant youngsters to eat more vegetables, try roasting them, especially green produce and root veggies. Also serve a new vegetable in a way similar to one that they already like; e.g., baking homemade sweet potato fries cut in familiar shapes. Kid-size veggies like mini-broccoli trees or baby carrots have appeal. Dressing up plain veggies with dips and shakers of a mild herb, spice, parmesan cheese, ground seeds or wheat germ adds to the fun.

Finally, encourage toddlers to help out in the kitchen by asking them to wash and sort the veggies or arrange them in a pretty way on the platter. If children are involved in preparing foods, they are more likely to eat them.

Jeannette Lee Bessinger, an award-winning lifestyle and nutrition educator, and Tracee Yablon Brenner, a registered dietitian, founded RealFoodMoms.com. These certified health counselors have co-authored two practical guides for families: Great Expectations: Best Food for Your Baby and Toddler and Simple Food for Busy Families.