Break Your Kid's Bad Food Habits

Does he live on pasta or freak when you serve anything green? You really can get him to start eating better.

Eating Traps

boy with cupcake frosting on face

Your child's hair-twirling, breath-holding, or nose-picking may drive you nuts, but most of these common kid habits tend to vanish with time -- and they may disappear sooner if you simply ignore them. However, if he's gotten into a less than stellar eating routine, don't assume he'll eventually expand his repertoire on his own. "Eating habits from childhood definitely can carry over into adulthood, so it's best to deal with them now," says Jennifer Trachtenberg, MD, author of Good Kids, Bad Habits. Since you don't want to make every meal a battleground, you'll need to take small, smart, and even sneaky steps to help your child change his ways. We've got expert action plans for kids' five major eating traps.

Nibbling Nonstop

Why it's bad
Snacking all day means your child won't be hungry at mealtime. Constant munching (even if it's mostly healthy stuff) also prevents her from learning to recognize her own feelings of hunger and fullness -- and that's an important skill she'll need throughout life.

How to break the habit

  • Set a schedule. Kids thrive on structure, so serve two or three daily snacks (midmorning, midafternoon, and bedtime if she's hungry) -- and try to have your child sit at the table for them. When she asks for a snack at another time, especially if she's just eaten and probably isn't even hungry, remind her that snacktime is coming. (If you're not comfortable denying her, offer a piece of fruit to tide her over.) "That can be hard at first, but the payoff is that your child's hunger will be better regulated and more predictable," says Linda Piette, RD, author of Just Two More Bites! That said, you should leave some wiggle room in your snack schedule, depending on the day's events.
  • Make snacks filling. A snack that includes some protein or fat will keep kids satisfied longer, so they're less likely to feel like nibbling. Some combos to try: peanut butter spread on graham-cracker squares, a slice of cheese melted onto whole-grain crackers, or apple slices dunked into fruit-flavored yogurt.
  • Keep junk out of sight. It's harder to say no when you have all sorts of goodies in the open -- and at little arms' reach. Rearrange your pantry and fridge so the only stuff you don't mind having them grab (like baby carrots or cups of applesauce) is front and center.

Drinking Juice 24/7

Why it's bad
A small amount of 100 percent juice can be a healthy part of a child's diet. However, more than a half cup or so a day fills up little tummies, so there's less room for food, and it may cause toddlers to get diarrhea. Though research hasn't found a link between drinking juice and gaining too much weight, it's definitely a source of extra calories (about 110 in a cup of apple juice) that add up quickly. It can supply vitamin C, but so can other foods: Your kid will get his day's worth of C from half an orange or a half cup of broccoli.

How to break the habit

  • Ditch the sippies. Serve juice in a regular cup at the table. Kids won't be able to gulp it down as quickly (or cart it around the house all afternoon).
  • Offer water first. Don't give your child juice when he's really thirsty -- he'll guzzle way too much, way too quickly, says Marilyn Tanner-Blasiar, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. Start handing out plain water after playground time or soccer practice. (Trust us: Thirsty kids will drink it.) Then let him enjoy the taste of smaller amounts of juice later, when he's not so parched.
  • Dilute, dilute, dilute. Water juice down by at least half. Use seltzer to make it more fun and a squirt of lemon juice to intensify the flavor. Just remember, offering diluted juice all day defeats the purpose. Make sure that the juice-and-water mix doesn't exceed one to two cups a day.

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