Break Your Kid's Bad Food Habits

Overdosing on Sugar

Why it's bad
Babies are born with a preference for sweet stuff, so it's no surprise that all kids love it. But added sugar -- the kind in desserts and sweet snacks -- also provides a lot of calories without a lot of nutrition. Food surveys reveal that toddlers take in the equivalent of 14 teaspoons of sugar every day, while 4- to 5-year-olds get about 17.

How to break the habit

  • Set limits. Instead of going cold turkey, establish some basic (and fair) rules -- then stick to them. Maybe it's a one-sweet-treat-a-day policy or perhaps a couple of small goodies (like a small square of chocolate or a bite-size cookie). Whatever it is, be clear about it and give your kids some choice, says Tanner-Blasiar. For instance, ask, "Do you want to have your sweet treat now or after dinner?" Keeping a limited number of sugary foods in the house will help.
  • Scout out sugar. Look at the sugar content of the foods your child's eating -- especially the ones you may not consider treats, like breakfast cereal and fruit snacks. Every four grams is the equivalent of a teaspoon of sugar. Eating a lot of sweet foods all day will stimulate her appetite for even more, so switch to low-sugar versions of favorites like yogurt and cereal and compare labels to find the best choices.
  • Don't assume. If you automatically trot out cookies and ice cream after dinner, you won't give your child a chance to satisfy her sweet tooth with healthier things, says Tanner-Blasiar. She just might go gaga over a sliced banana with cinnamon sprinkled on it, chunks of fresh pineapple, or strawberries topped with a dollop of fat-free whipped topping.

Eating Too Many Carbs

Why it's bad
Children who refuse protein-rich foods like meat and poultry may not get all the valuable nutrients they need, such as zinc and highly absorbable iron. If they're eating a lot of carbohydrates like white bread and noodles, which the body digests quickly, they'll also complain that they're hungry again pretty soon after meals.

How to break the habit

  • Go soft. "Many kids don't like meat because of the texture," says Piette. "It can be tough and takes a long time to chew." That's one reason most children love chicken nuggets -- the meat inside is chopped up and easy to eat. Try braising meats and poultry (cook them with broth in a covered pan), or use the slow cooker to make them supersoft. Hide lean ground beef or turkey in spaghetti sauce and casseroles or finely diced chicken in soup. Your child might also go for lunch meats like turkey or roast beef rolled up in a tortilla.
  • Provide protein. If your child won't budge on meat, include some kind of protein source at meals such as beans, eggs, and low-fat dairy products. But don't stress out too much: Most kids get plenty of protein. The average toddler only needs about 16 grams a day (roughly 24 for a preschooler). A cup of milk has eight grams, two tablespoons of peanut butter have seven to eight, and a reduced-fat string cheese has six to eight.
  • Upgrade the carbs. Whole grains are more filling, plus they're packed with fiber and nutrients like vitamin E and magnesium. Dr. Trachtenberg recommends the "Rule of Three" when you're choosing cold cereal: at least three grams of fiber and protein per serving, and sugar should not be one of the first three ingredients listed.

Refusing Veggies

Why it's bad
Vegetables are rich in vitamins A and C, plus fiber. You can get those in fruit too, but learning to love vegetables is still important: Kids who eat veggies grow up to be adults who eat veggies, and eating lots of fruits and vegetables is linked to a better diet, healthier body weight, and lower risk of disease.

How to break the habit

  • Don't be afraid of fat. A little bit of healthy fat makes veggies taste better, plus it helps the body absorb the vitamins. A teaspoon of light margarine or a sprinkle of reduced-fat shredded cheese adds fewer than 50 calories and a couple grams of fat -- and may mean your child actually eats his broccoli.
  • Make it special. Let your kids help you create an "appetizer tray" of veggies for them to munch on while you're fixing dinner, along with some hummus or low-fat ranch dressing for dip. "This does take some extra time, but it can make all the difference in the world," says Dr. Trachtenberg.
  • Be cool. Never pressure or punish your kids over any food, vegetables included, or you're headed for some serious power struggles. Actions speak louder than words, so always have veggies on the table at meals (put new ones alongside "safety" veggies they already know), eat a helping or two yourself, and casually mention how fresh and delicious they are. It may take weeks (or months), but your child just might ask to try them someday.

Originally published in the March 2009 issue of Parents magazine.

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