How to Raise a Good Eater

Getting your preschooler to eat vegetables or drink milk doesn't have to be a losing battle. With some patience and planning, you can make peace at the dinner table.

Getting your 3- or 4-year-old to eat a variety of healthy foods can be an ongoing challenge, since she's still learning to try new tastes and textures. "A child's growth rate also slows down quite a bit at this age, so she's not going to have the voracious appetite that she did when she was 2," says Margaret Bogle, Ph.D., R.D., coauthor of How Should I Feed My Child? (Chronimed, 1993).

The good news: Your child is also at an age when she's an enthusiastic and quick learner, so now is the perfect time to help her establish smart eating habits. "Preschoolers are curious about food and interested in helping you prepare it," says Joan Carter, R.D., of the Children's Nutrition Research Center at Baylor College of Medicine, in Houston. "The more you can involve them, the more likely it is that they will become healthy eaters." To get you started, we asked experts to solve five common struggles between parent and preschooler.

Q: My 4-year-old has a terrible sweet tooth. How should I deal with it?

A: The worst thing you can do is try to withhold sweets altogether," says Beth Kitchin, R.D., director of the University of Alabama's EatRight Information Service. "It only makes kids want them more." The operative word in dealing with a sweets-crazy 3- or 4-year-old is moderation. Teach your child that having such sugary foods as cookies and candy on occasion can be one part of an overall healthy diet. Stock your cabinets and refrigerator with healthier sweet treats, such as raisins, dried apricots, fruit yogurt, pears, oranges, melon, and graham crackers. Offer these to your child for snacks and dessert. If he's used to eating cookies, doughnuts, and candy, he'll probably resist at first, but be firm and consistent.

Q: What's the deal with kids and vegetables? My 3-year-old won't touch anything but peas. Help!

A: "Preschoolers often reject foods on the basis of texture and smell, not taste," says Dr. Bogle. You may have better luck serving crunchy raw veggies rather than mushy, strong-smelling cooked ones. To increase your child's vegetable repertoire, don't force the issue -- and be patient. It may take five, ten, or even more attempts before your child takes a bite of a new food. Another smart strategy: Let her help you choose vegetables at the store and prepare them. "Giving your child more of a connection to the food she's eating can make it more appealing," says Carter. "Even a 3-year-old can help you fix a salad." Another fun way to get your child interested in vegetables: Plant a small garden in the backyard and tend it together.

Kids love dips, too; try serving cut-up carrots and peppers with a little bowl of hummus or ranch dressing. If the straightforward approach fails, don't hesitate to sneak vegetables into your child's diet: Put shredded spinach in meat loaf or lasagna, bake zucchini bread or carrot muffins, or add broccoli to macaroni and cheese. And since 3- and 4-year-olds tend to mimic behavior, be a good role model yourself by eating vegetables regularly.

Q: I hate to send my child off to preschool on an empty stomach, but he won't eat breakfast. What should I do?

A: One way to get him to eat something in the a.m. is to set out a good breakfast on the table: instant oatmeal or whole-wheat toaster waffles, for example. If the food is in front of him, your child just might eat it -- or at least nibble. If he consistently resists, move on to Plan B. Give him a glass of 100 percent fruit juice as soon as he wakes up; it may stimulate his appetite so that by the time he's dressed, he'll be ready for breakfast, says William H. Dietz, M.D., Ph.D., coeditor of The American Academy of Pediatrics' Guide to Your Child's Nutrition: Making Peace at the Table and Building Healthy Eating Habits for Life (Villard, 1999). If he's not interested in the standard breakfast fare, try a fruit-yogurt shake or pancakes in the shape of letters or animals. If none of these approaches work, at least pack a snack that he can munch on the way to school if he gets hungry: fresh fruit, a granola bar, or a bran muffin.

Q: My preschooler refuses to drink milk, and I'm worried that she's not getting enough calcium. Are there ways to add calcium to her diet?

A: Yes. Although milk is one of the best sources of calcium, other dairy foods, such as cheese and yogurt, are also good sources. If your child likes juice, you're in luck: One glass of calcium-fortified orange juice contains as much calcium as a glass of milk. Even such foods as nuts, soy milk, and broccoli contain healthy amounts of this bone-building mineral. You can boost your child's milk intake by giving her chocolate milk or mixing regular milk into oatmeal, hot cocoa, or fruit smoothies. Three- and 4-year-olds need 500 milligrams of calcium a day. A cup of milk contains 316 milligrams; a cup of plain low-fat yogurt, 415 milligrams; an ounce of cheddar cheese, 204 milligrams; a cup of broccoli, 94 milligrams; and an ounce of almonds, 75 milligrams.

Q: I never know if I'm giving my child too many snacks. What's appropriate for a preschooler?

A: Snacks provide necessary fuel for children, who burn calories more quickly than adults and need more energy to make it from meal to meal. Most kids should eat five times a day (depending on their habits, two to three official meals and two to three snacks). The best snacks contain carbohydrates and protein for lasting energy: peanut butter and crackers; celery or carrot sticks with cream cheese; yogurt and fruit; half a sandwich; a bowl of cereal with milk. Just steer clear of simple carbohydrates, such as candy bars and cookies, which provide only a jolt of energy and very few nutrients.

Copyright © 2004. Reprinted with permission from the February 2000 issue of Parents magazine.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

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