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How to Raise a Healthy Eater

My son Liam was a good eater from day one. He dove into solids at 5 months and has willingly tried new foods ever since. For years I thought smugly, "What's the big deal about getting kids to eat well? Just put food on their plates and let 'em go to it."

Then his younger brother was born. Until he was 7 months old, Michael pressed his lips together, turned his head, and refused all solid foods. To this day, he regards anything green with utter suspicion (unless it's an M&M), and heaven forbid I let foods on his plate touch one another  -- or, worse, actually combine them in a casserole or stew. He'll dissect the meal and study each morsel like an archaeologist examining relics at a dig.

It took me a while to realize that his picky eating wasn't a personal assault on my cooking or mothering skills, but another side of his cautious, analytical personality. I also learned that raising a healthy eater requires more than just providing healthy foods. It has to do with how those foods are offered. Some easy ideas for helping your child (and even my Michael) eat better:

Let them eat cake
Goodies are a part of life; sooner or later your kids will be exposed to them. Whether they gorge on cookies and chips or eat them in moderation may depend on how you've presented them at home.
Researchers have found that when kids are forbidden to eat snacks, the snacks become more desirable. "In one study, we gave preschoolers lunch. If they said they were full afterward, we put them in a room with lots of treats," says Leann Birch, Ph.D., a professor of human development and family studies at Pennsylvania State University in University Park. "The kids whose parents were most restrictive were the ones who ate the most  -- as much as 500 extra calories' worth. They'd learned that when snacks are available, they'd better eat whether they're hungry or not because the goodies aren't going to be around very often."

The key is to make sure your child doesn't overindulge. "My husband likes to have cookies before he goes to bed, while my four-year-old prefers ice cream. So, many nights he'll have a few cookies, and she'll have a scoop," says Celeste Reynolds of Sandwich, Massachusetts. "We treat desserts or snacks as foods that are fine to have in moderation. Aurelia likes doughnuts, too, for instance, but she knows they're a Sunday-morning treat."

Show off your healthy habits
Kids like to be like Mom and Dad, so let yours see how much you enjoy trying new and healthy foods. Choose a piece of fruit over a cookie; explain why you're eating a high-fiber cereal rather than a sugary one.

Of course, this is no easy task if you're a finicky eater. But your child needn't pick up your bad habits, as Jennifer Nagel of Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, found out. "I never thought to give my eighteen-month-old things like cooked beans or hummus because I never ate them myself. Then I saw a friend feeding her child pinto beans, and I decided to try them on Jason. He loved them! He also loves steamed broccoli, which I don't. Now I offer him not only a taste of what I'm eating, but also things I don't eat. As a result, he eats black olives, feta cheese, all sorts of foods that I  -- and most kids  -- won't go near." A bonus: You may find your tastes expand, too. "I started cooking acorn squash for Jason, and now I eat it, too, even though I wouldn't touch it before," says Nagel.

Laura Flynn McCarthy wrote about moms and headaches in the May 2004 issue.

Eat together

You've heard it before; we'll say it again. Research shows that families who have meals together at least once a day eat more nutritiously than those who don't. Yet only about 50 percent of school-age kids have one meal daily with their parents. Strapped for time, or don't like to cook? Serve takeout like rotisserie chicken or a veggie pizza, or a combination of frozen food (like lasagna) with fresh food (a salad). Have clashing schedules? The meal needn't be dinner  -- breakfast or lunch works just as well. The point is to gather together, talk, and share your love for good food  -- and for one another.

Don't always take "no" for an answer
If at first your child won't touch a "yucky" food, try again. And again. It can take as many as ten exposures before your little one develops a taste for it. The more pressured he feels, the less likely he is to eat, says Birch, so don't push. Just put the food on the table and let him decide if he wants to try it.

Also smart: Start early. Ideally, you should introduce as many new foods as you can to your child before he's 2. After that, kids resist new flavors more. But even then, once the food's no longer new  -- once they've seen it, smelled it, and touched it a few times  -- they'll be more willing to try it.

Admittedly, at some point you may have to accept that your child doesn't like, say, brussels sprouts. If it's something you'd really like to see him eat, wait a year. By school age, kids are often more willing to try different foods again and may even develop a taste for them.

"We have a 'No, thank you' rule," says Katrina Nash of Plano, Texas, mom of Ben, 10, and Ryan, 6. "They need to try at least one bite of everything, but once they've tried it they can say, 'No, thank you,' and they don't have to eat any more of it. We say, 'Well, maybe your taste buds aren't old enough for that food yet.' That leaves the door open to trying the food again another time, when we can say, 'Let's see if your taste buds are old enough for it now.'"

When all else fails, take out the saltshaker
Or try a spoonful of sugar, a pat of butter, or some low-fat cheese. A study at the University of Michigan found that up to 25 percent of people are "supertasters." They're hypersensitive to compounds in broccoli, raw cabbage, spinach, and a few other vegetables that make them taste bitter. If your child turns up her nose at such foods, you might try neutralizing the bitterness with a sprinkle of salt, a tiny dash of sugar, a little maple syrup, or something creamy, such as melted cheese on top. My son Michael just doesn't like cooked vegetables. But if I offer him a plate of fat-free ranch dip surrounded by raw carrots and cucumbers in the late afternoon, when he's really hungry, he'll eat it all before dinner. He'll even eat salad, if he can put the same ranch dressing on it. You can try this for foods with unfamiliar textures, too.

Keep it out of the house

If you really don't want your child to eat something, don't buy it. Kids will desire a food more strongly if it's around but they aren't allowed to have it. If they're not exposed to the food in the first place, though, they won't miss it.

Sherry Huhn Gotzler of Madison, Wisconsin, mom of Ella, 3, and Jane, 19 months, says this tactic has worked for her. "When Ella says, 'I want a cookie,' I'll say, 'Okay, let's make some.' This way I can make them more nutritious. We like to bake peanut butter cookies rather than chocolate chip, for example. For breakfast, if she wants a sweet cereal, I'll add a handful of raisins to some shredded wheat we have in the house. Or we'll cook oatmeal and add a little brown sugar  -- much less than the amount in the instant varieties."

Serve meals family style
You won't be shirking your mom duties by not loading your child's plate for him. It's actually smart to let him serve himself at the table starting at about age 3. (Always offer at least one thing you know he'll eat, as well as a new food or two.) A child's more likely to eat a variety of foods when they're offered this way. And when a younger child sees older siblings and parents eating from many choices, he's more likely to try the foods, too.

Serving himself also helps a child learn to control portions, which is especially important if he's 5 or older. Birch's research has found that when 3-year-olds are given large amounts of food, they tend to stop eating when they're full. But 5-year-olds who are served mammoth portions tend to eat more than they would otherwise. (The same is true for adults.) "As kids get older, they become more responsive to outside cues and less to internal cues in determining how much to eat," says Birch. With portion sizes creeping up at restaurants and in prepackaged foods, that's a setup for obesity. Letting your child serve himself gives him control. You're in charge of offering him food, but he should decide how much he's going to eat. (If he's too young to serve himself, provide small portions and let him ask for more if he wants it.)

Involve your kids
Your mealtimes will go more smoothly if you get your child in on the action. Let him help select the food, but rather than ask, "What vegetable shall we have tonight?" ask "Should we have green beans or broccoli?" You'll give him a choice without giving him full rein.

Share kitchen duty, too. He may not eat green peppers when you stick them on his plate, but if you put them out with some other veggies as toppings for him to add to a homemade pizza, he may be more willing to try them. Karen Postal of Plymouth, Michigan, has found that Madison, 5, and Carlie, 3, love to play sous-chef. "They each have their own vegetable brush and help me scrub the produce we use in our juicer," she says. "They take turns adding carrots, apples, whatever the recipe calls for, and then we'll pour the juice into fun cups with wraparound straws."
Kaleo Waxman of Menlo Park, California, has assigned salad duty to her 5-year-old, Morgan. "Each evening he tears the lettuce and measures out the oil and vinegar for the dressing."

As moms, we usually end up taking on the role of family chef and nutritionist. But this needn't involve meticulously measuring vitamin intakes or checking off daily food groups. Whether it's eating dinner together or asking your child to help with lunch prep, even the simple things can make a big difference.

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