When I grab my stethoscope in the morning for a day of seeing typical kids, I know without looking at the appointment list that I'll be viewing the consequences of big portion sizes, overprocessed snacks and sweets, and a lack of veggies. It's not one meal or snack that's the problem. It's the pattern. Slowly, the BMI creep up. Blood sugar and blood pressure begin their silent rise. Most of the other rapidly increasing conditions in kids, such as asthma, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and diabetes, also have links to how children eat. It would be great if schools taught Good Food 101 along with language, math, and science, but you can't count on that. The flip side of the coin is that you can teach your kids about real food and smart portions through fun games and visual examples.
Try app-y meals: Fooducate (free; itunes.com) is a mobile pap that lets you scan any food with a bar code to get a quick letter grade for how real and healthy it is. It turns the search for healthy eats into a kid-friendly point-and-shoot video game.
Practice pace: Slowing the pace to at least 30 seconds from start-of-bite to start-of-bite gives the body a chance to send and receive fullness signals after eating just the right amount.
Play "punch buggy" for processed foods: There's a reason manufacturers use kid-friendly characters to sell their stuff: It works! In one study, kids were as likely to choose broccoli as a chocolate bar if there was an Elmo sticker on the broccoli. But you can teach kids to recognize marketing tricks. In my family, we play a new version of the "punch buggy" game. In the original, you tapped a compatriot if you were the first to spot a particular type of car or license plate. In our version, you snap your fingers if you're the first to notice a food ad trying to appeal to kids. Common strategies include the use of cartoon characters and bright colors on the packaging.
Ask "Who's your mama?": Your fridge and pantry are full of props for playing "Who's your mama?" Take turns choosing food items and asking where they come from. Apples come from trees. Milk comes from cows. Carrots grow in the ground. If it's got a simple family tree, it's real food. But if you choose something that uses ingredients like dextrose, gelatin, calcium carbonate, Blue 1, and Red 40, then the answer is "factory."
Alan Greene, M.D. is a pediatrician and the author of the best-selling Raising Baby Green. He lives in Danville, CA.