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HEART Insight:
doi: 10.1097/01.HEARTI.0000334390.34846.6d
Features: Nutrition Know-Knows

Old Habits Start Young

Wormser, Deborah

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Tips And Tactics To Get kids interested in Healthy eating

As a child, Judith Wylie-Rosett refused to eat any food she couldn't drown in ketchup and pickle relish.

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“A lot of things just seemed repulsive to me,” recalls Wylie-Rosett, Ed.D., R.D. — now head of behavioral and nutritional research in the department of epidemiology and population health at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in The Bronx, NY.

Her mother outmaneuvered her by increasing the number of foods served at meals so that there would be something her finicky eater was sure to like — or would discover she liked, once she tried it. “You don't want to ... make food a battleground,” says Wylie-Rosett, who has devised treatment programs to address childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes — a metabolic disorder once found almost exclusively in adults, that increases cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk.

Ideally, children should learn to make healthy food choices at an early age so good eating habits have taken hold by the time they leave the nest. Here are some strategies to help accomplish this goal:

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First-time visitors are often struck by the quietness of Montessori classrooms. The secret to their success: a structured environment where children are free to select their work. The trick is that only good choices are offered. You can achieve that quiet and order at the dinner table by offering a wide variety of nutritious foods and letting children choose what and how much to eat: Bananas or strawberries? Yogurt or a cheese stick?

“I often tell families...that the one place you have complete what's available at home,” says Stephen R. Daniels, M.D., Ph.D., M.P.H., pediatrician-in-chief at The Children's Hospital in Aurora, CO, who treats children with two other obesity-associated conditions — high cholesterol and high blood pressure. If the home contains only healthy choices, it's easier for parents to give the child more autonomy, he says.

Another potential battleground involves overfeeding, which occurs when parents mistakenly believe there is a certain amount of food that kids must eat at each meal. Appetite varies from child to child, day to day and even meal to meal. As long as kids are growing appropriately, they will be fine, assures Daniels.

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Insisting on a “clean your plate” policy can send the message that a child should keep eating after becoming full. Worse, if a parent promises “dessert, if you clean your plate — that sets up the wrong kind of dynamic around food,” Daniels says.

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2. Try, Try Again

Studies show kids need to try a new food up to a dozen times before they decide whether they like it. Too many parents give up after the first or second try, says Daniels. A younger child who grimaces when trying a new food may be reacting to its novelty rather than its taste, he explains.

Parents can avoid power struggles if they keep their cool when the child doesn't want to try a new food. If a child gets attention for avoiding new things, it can reinforce the very behavior you want to prevent, notes Daniels. In addition, parents need to understand that different people have different taste buds, Wylie-Rosett says. Something that tastes fine to one person might taste bitter to someone else.

To increase success with new foods, limit snacking, especially in the hour before meals — for instance, offer only raw vegetables to munch on before supper.

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Ads for sugary, high-fat foods are everywhere — on TV, on Web sites, even on the floor of the grocery store — and the more ads kids see for junk and fast food, the more insistent they become about wanting you to buy them.

Many junk foods are intentionally placed at a child's eye level — particularly at checkout counters — Wylie-Rosett says. She advises avoiding power struggles by traveling the perimeter of the store, where the produce and dairy departments are usually located, and steering clear of the center aisles, where many of the processed foods are found.

Use your shopping excursion as an opportunity to teach kids how to read nutritional labels, compare the amount of sugar, fat or sodium on two similar products and give their opinion on the one that's the healthier option. And enlist their help in scanning items at the self-checkout lane. Not only their hands will stay busy, but you are less likely to find display stands stuffed with candy and chips, says Wylie-Rosett.

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Children eat with their eyes, their hands and their mouths. Make food more appealing by discussing the textures, shapes and colors on the plate. “The most wholesome way to do that is to get kids involved in cooking,” Wylie-Rosett says. One of her pet peeves is that children often learn only how to bake, not how to make healthy fruit and vegetable dishes. Kids enjoy making recipes and are curious to taste their creations, Wylie-Rosett says, adding that cooking gives young people “pride of ownership.” [See pages 30–38 for recipes the whole family will enjoy.]

Daniels suggests having grandparents and other relatives help out as “celebrity chefs.” Relatives who need to make dietary changes to help keep heart disease or diabetes in check provide a concrete cause-and-effect link between eating habits and health. “If the whole family is working on [a loved one's healthy diet], I think the chances of success are that much higher,” he says.

Wylie-Rosett also sees kitchen duty as a “teachable moment” in good manners — once they begin to appreciate how much work goes into preparing a meal, they will understand the importance of refusing something they do not want to eat politely, thanking the cook for his or her efforts.

If you start young, your kids will tend to make better food choices even when they're teens. “It's a rite of passage to eat junk food, but it doesn't become a central focus,” Wylie-Rosett says. While it's never too late to change your family's eating habits for the better, it gets harder as kids get older.

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It Takes A Village

A parent can find loads of opportunities for children to learn about, and practice, healthy food choices — if he or she knows where to look:

American Community Gardening Association

Includes a database of community gardens in the U.S. and Canada, searchable by the name/description, as well as by zip code, or city and state.

American Culinary Federation's “Chef and Child Foundation”

This program's mission is “to educate children and families in understanding proper nutrition through community-based initiatives led by American Culinary Federation chef members.”

Association of Junior Leagues International's “Kids in the Kitchen”

The goal of this initiative is “to empower youth to make healthy lifestyle choices and help reverse the growth of childhood obesity and its associated health issues.”

Boy Scouts of America

The Personal Fitness Merit Badge includes nutritional requirements, as well as an understanding of how “youth risk factors affect cardiovascular fitness in adulthood.”

Girl Scouts of the USA

The Smart Living program includes a Smart Eating component “to develop healthy eating habits and understand how eating affects overall well-being.”

National Gardening Association

Maintains a registry of school-based gardening and greenhouse programs, searchable by state and grade range.

U.S.D.A.: Farmers Markets

A database of farmers markets nationwide, searchable by state, city, county or zip code.

© 2008 American Heart Association, Inc.