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Children’s Eating Habits

Lunch with my favorite fifth-grader. It seemed a perfect time to talk about good food choices. She listened patiently, then said, “Don't worry about me, Gramma. I know all about the four food groups. It's just that all the things I like are in the fifth food group - junk food!”

Of course, it's not just “grammas” who worry about children's eating habits. Most parents do too. Usually it's because the child doesn't want to eat at mealtimes, doesn't eat enough, or prefers the wrong foods. If you're worried about your child's nutrition, consider these suggestions:

1. Make mealtime a happy time, free of “discussions” of family finances, poor report cards, or table manners.

2. Serve only nourishing foods, those low in fats and sugar. Skip desserts, serve fruit for dessert, or have dessert only once a week. And throw out the snack foods that are heavy in fats, salt, or sugar, stock up, instead, on healthful snacks.

3. Substitute nutritious foods your child likes for those he or she dislikes. Many vegetables, for example, have similar nutritional value. Your child may refuse to eat spinach but be willing to eat peas.

Incidentally, there may be a very good reason behind the dislike many children have for vegetables. Alexandra Logue from the University of New York, states: “Some children are genetically sensitive to certain tastes. They find vegetables bitter.”

4. Try a different form of the food your child dislikes. A child who disdains cooked carrots may like raw carrot sticks. And children who dislike casseroles will often eat the casserole ingredients prepared separately, unmixed.

5. Experiment with flavorings. A school cook told me that she adds vanilla to orange juice to make the juice taste sweeter. And a parent said her daughter won't eat green beans unless she sprinkles them with chicken-style seasoning. Another parent adds vanilla and raisins to the morning oatmeal.

6. Present the food in a colorful manner. Your child might like to make open-faced sandwiches or salads with faces. The base could be half a peach or pear or bread spread with peanut butter. Add raisins or cereal for eyes, nose, and mouth and coconut for hair.

7. Change your schedule. If your problem is a child who fills up on snacks after school and has little appetite for a late-evening meal, consider changing the dinner hour. If breakfast is a problem, you may want to get your child up early enough for a brief playtime before breakfast.

8. Teach your child why we eat nutritious food and how to make wise choices.

9. Don't let your child get into the habit of skipping meals and then asking for food soon after. You might require such a child to stay at the table until the family is finished and allow no snacks before the next meal. (Very young children, however, may need something to eat before going to bed.)

10. Breakfast is especially important. You may be able to arouse the appetite of a child who is finicky at breakfast by substituting favorite foods for traditional breakfast foods – spaghetti or sandwiches in place of cereal, for instance.

11. Avoid power struggles about eating. You don't want to turn picky eating into an eating disorder. Be patient. A growth spurt may change today's finicky eater into tomorrow's chow hound.

12. Remember, also, that a child's stomach is very small. What seems to an adult like a small amount may be enough for a child. Children who have regular checkups and are making adequate weight gains are probably eating enough. Requiring a child to eat everything placed before him or her may encourage overeating, putting on fat that may be hard to take off later.

Finally, do keep in mind that picky eaters are found only in homes that have an abundance of food. I once worked in a school in a low-income neighborhood. The students ate lunch family style in the classrooms. One day an eight-year-old picked up a serving bowl, now empty of the green beans it had held, and began licking it. Glancing sideways at me, she said, “I know this is bad manners, but it tastes so-o-o good!”

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