Want to make a million-dollar investment in your child's health? Put stock in nutrition. A child who grows up with a balanced diet and a healthy attitude about food will be less likely to have problems like diabetes or heart disease as an adult. "The science is very clear that kids form lifelong food preferences and behaviors when they're young," says Parents advisor Connie Diekman, RD, president of the American Dietetic Association (ADA). Whether you have a baby or a fourth-grader, it always pays to kick nutrition up a notch. We teamed with the ADA to bring you a must-read guide that's filled with healthy ideas.
Q. I hate it when my husband gives our baby something unhealthy, like a cookie or ice cream. Am I overreacting?
An occasional bite won't hurt, but it's smart to avoid these types of sweets, especially since studies show that babies tend to eat less healthfully once they switch to finger foods. It's much better for your baby to learn to love the taste of nutritious foods, including a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, says Diekman.
Q. My infant wants to nurse nonstop all day and several times during the night. Could he be eating too much?
For now, let your baby eat whenever he wants to. Babies are naturally equipped with the ability to know how much they need -- a skill you shouldn't mess with. Plus, babies go through mini growth spurts, when they need to eat more. "If your baby's growing well, you can rest assured that he's getting the right amount," says Elisa Zied, RD, an ADA spokesperson and author of Feed Your Family Right! If you're worried that he's sucking just for comfort, talk to your pediatrician or a lactation consultant.
Q. My toddler is constantly asking me for snacks. Should I try to cut back on between-meal munching?
Snacks are a vital part of a toddler's diet, since her stomach can't hold enough food at meals to keep her nourished for more than a few hours. Snacks are also a great way to get nutrients missing from meals. That said, limits are important. First, be sure your child is actually hungry and not just bored. Another common snack trap: pacifying your antsy kid with munchies when you're out and about. "Nibbling all day teaches her to eat when she's not hungry, and this could cause her to mindlessly overconsume calories," says Zied. Instead, plan a small midmorning and midafternoon snack (plus a bedtime snack if she's hungry). Serve snacks at the table whenever possible.
Q. My 6-year-old is a lot chubbier than his friends. What should I do?
Talk to your pediatrician, who can check the growth charts and tell you for sure. Strict diets aren't good for children -- and since kids grow quickly, it's usually better to slow or stop weight gain rather than trying to drop pounds. Make small, calorie-shaving changes for the whole family: Switch to fat-free milk, eliminate sugary drinks, limit take-out food or pizza delivery, stock up on healthy snacks (and buy fewer chips and cookies), and serve smaller portions at mealtimes. Explain that you're taking steps to improve everyone's health, and don't single out your child or talk about weight, says David Grotto, RD, a spokesperson for the ADA. Also, encourage him to be active by taking him to the park, going for family walks after dinner, or signing him up for an after-school sport.