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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.