This is a guest post by Karen Cicero, Parents' Contributing Food and Nutrition Editor.
Fish, whole grains, veggies—these probably aren't your kids' favorite foods (okay, they might not even like them at all), but it's worth your time to work on it. Here's why: A new study of 9,000 children ages 2 to 9 in eight European countries found that those who most closely follow a Mediterranean diet are 15 percent less likely to be overweight. I admit that it doesn't sound like a huge deal, but considering nearly 1 in 5 American kids ages 6 to 11 is overweight, it makes a significant dent. Plus, since obesity rates increase as kids get older, it's worth getting on the right track before the tween and teen years.
What's so special about the Mediterranean approach? The researchers think that the high fiber content and healthy fats found in foods like nuts, avocados, olive oil, and produce may help prevent kids from overeating. "This is the first study I've seen that makes the connection between the Mediterranean and obesity in kids," says Lauri Wright, R.D.N., a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and mom of three. "We already know that this type of eating plan is healthy in many other ways—like helping to prevent heart disease—so it's wonderful that it may have extra benefits for children too."
Of course, you're not going to be able to switch your child's eating habits overnight, but take these steps to make your family's meals and snacks more Mediterranean:
* Do over dip. Swap the creamy salad dressings your kid drenches his baby carrots in for healthy hummus.
* Make pizza at home. Use thin whole-grain crust. Make it yourself (find a recipe here) or buy pick up a package of whole-wheat Naan bread (my daughter prefers it for her pizza!). Top it with whatever veggie your kid likes—even if it's corn.
* Start working in more seafood. Let your child give it a try in a no-pressure situation, like when it's on a buffet or when she's having a bite of yours. When my daughter was a toddler, she used to swipe clams and mussels from my plate, at first mainly because she was intrigued by the shells. But then she began requesting a bowl of her own! Eventually, work your way up to homemade fish nuggets—Wright coats pieces of mild fish with applesauce and then rolls them in cornmeal before baking. When you're ready to move onto grilled fish, top it with a salsa made from your child's favorite fruits. That's how I got my daughter to taste salmon and sea bass, which are now her faves.
* Build on veggie success. Chances are, your child likes a lot of different kinds of fruits and a few veggies. Combine a favorite with something that's unfamiliar or not as well liked (such as corn with red onions or cucumbers with radishes or watermelon with baby spinach) to increase the chance that he'll eat it. Salad can be a tough sell so start with mild butter lettuce and add a lot of fun familiar ingredients (like dried fruit, sunflower seeds, or orange wedges). Kids may also enjoy salads more if they're chopped. Even though it takes longer to prepare, you'll have a happy, healthier eater as a reward.