Changing Kids' Eating Habits
Sometimes it can be a challenge to get your children to eat healthy. Kids can be resistant to new foods, and as they get older they become more set in their eating patterns. Sometimes their food preferences can be quite narrow. There's fair research to show that the wider variety of foods that kids are exposed to when they are young, the better the chance that they will eat more types of food. (For those of you who haven't had kids yet, there's some evidence that eating a wide variety of foods while pregnant may help your child be less picky.)

But what if you already have a kid who is picky? How can you help your child's diet to be broader and healthier? First and foremost, don't sweat this too much. The most important thing is to feed your child as healthy a diet as possible.

Step 1. Purchase and make food that's fresh. Avoid boxed Mac and Cheese, for instance, or other convenience foods. Making such things from fresh ingredients doesn't take much longer, and there are fresh, healthy recipes for Mac and Cheese (for example, on the Web site), made with fresh milk, cheese and pasta, that are going to be so much better than what comes in a box. There is good evidence that over time kids do develop a preference for healthier and fresher foods, so persistence is the key.

Step 2. If you are going to use any convenience products, choose those that have as few artificial ingredients as possible. For instance, spaghetti with tomato sauce is a great meal for kids, so look for one with no added sugar, chemicals, high fructose corn syrup and less salt. If you don't recognize an ingredient because it has a chemical name, it might be better to put it back on the shelf and look for something else.

Step 3. If your child loves something in particular, that's great. Feed it to them. For instance, if they like Mexican food, serve them that. Tacos, taco salad, enchiladas, burritos, whatever. The key is to pack in as many veggies as possible—onions, peppers, tomatoes, salsa, lettuce. Be creative with shrimp enchiladas, fish tacos, chicken burritos, corn and bean enchiladas and even baked potatoes topped with chili.

Step 4. Take what you can get at other meals, especially breakfast. Feed them Nutragrain waffles, yogurt, oatmeal, Raisin Bran, Cheerios, pancakes, raisin wheat toast, eggs and toast, egg and English muffin sandwiches, etc. Choose whole-wheat versions whenever your child will eat those. Peanut butter sandwiches, tuna fish and egg salad sandwiches are all great choices. Use leftover rotisserie chicken for lunchtime sandwiches. Grilled cheese and cheese sandwiches are perfect. Avoid using processed meats like bologna, hot dogs or luncheon meat.

Step 5. Snack 'em up. It's best to give kids about the same serving size at meals as they will have when they are adults. In between meals, have them snack based on their activity level. Keeping great snacks on hand is key. Peanut butter sandwiches, popcorn, nuts and trail mix are great options, and either cut up fruit or have portioned fruit available in the fridge. Avoid any processed fruit products like fruit bars or fruit rollups: they're not any better than candy.

Target their baseline calories at about 1,500 calories at meals, then add extra calories as needed. Estimated amounts of calories needed to maintain energy balance for various gender and age groups at three different levels of physical activity. View the Institute of Medicine's Estimated Calorie Requirements by age range and activity level.

Step 6. Clean up the drinks. Work to get away from sugary drinks. Calorie for calorie, your child is better off with chocolate milk than with soda, juice or Kool Aid. Choose low-fat milk and two tablespoons of powdered chocolate milk mix, and while it will have about the same calories as a can of soda, it will provide substantive nutritional value. Help your kids when they are young to not drink empty calories they don't need.

Step 7. Get some books. One of the best cookbooks for feeding kids is by Missy Chase Lapine. Her series, The Sneaky Chef, is excellent and she gives dozens of ways to "sneak" veggies and healthy ingredients into your kids' food.

With a few simple nudges you can move your kid toward better choices. The key is planning and creating meals from the freshest ingredients. Make sure that you have the building blocks on hand for fresher, less processed foods at meals, and great healthy snacks.

Eat well, eat healthy, enjoy life! Dr. Gourmet

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