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Change Your Child's Eating Habits for the Better

We're moving into not just a new year but a new decade. That means it's time for the mother of all New Year's resolutions. And speaking of mothers (and fathers), if you're the parent of a toddler you might want to focus your annual fresh start on something that really matters: your little one's diet. That's right. And with childhood obesity and the rising rate of diabetes regularly featured in the news, parents are reminded how critical it is that their bundle of joy—and pickiness, stubbornness and attitude—eats a balanced, healthy mix of foods. But if you're like most parents you too often find yourself heating up yet another plate of frozen chicken nuggets or pouring another bowl of cereal just to get your child to eat something.

It's time for that to change, says nutritionist Christina Schmidt, M.S. Why not make 2010 the year that you resolve to overcome those food aversions and introduce—and stick to—a healthy menu of foods to your toddler?

"Parents know how their decisions affect their kids, but sometimes they make less-than-ideal food choices for them out of sheer desperation," says Schmidt, author of The Toddler Bistro: Child-Approved Recipes and Expert Nutrition Advice for the Toddler Years (Bull Publishing Company, 2009, ISBN: 978-1-933503-19-6, $16.95). "The good news is there are ways to persuade your toddler to eat her broccoli trees and apple-bit airplanes without making yourself crazy."

"And remember that eating healthy isn't only a decision that parents should make for their kids, but for themselves as well," she adds. "So moving into the new decade, parents should also keep in mind the impact that resolving to eat better will make on their children's lives."

If you think that getting your toddler to eat healthier is a tall order, Schmidt has some words of encouragement. You and your oh-so-picky toddler can come to an understanding and you can help her overcome her food hang-ups and learn to love (or at least tolerate) the nutritious fare that help her grow strong and healthy. Basically, once you decide to make that change in eating habits and stick to that decision, your toddler will also make that change—it may take a little effort, but it will happen.

Schmidt's The Toddler Bistro serves as a nutrition guide, cookbook, and how-to for busy parents of toddlers with picky palates and erratic eating habits. It's packed with quick and simple recipes to help stressed-out moms and dads handle mealtime meltdowns without giving in. The book explains the cause behind toddler's food hang-ups and gives simple to follow techniques that will allow even the weariest of parents to get their kids to eat healthy. It's also for those parents who simply want to make sure their tots are eating the right foods in the right quantities.

Ready to throw out those old eating habits and introduce some new ones? Then read on for some of Christina's tips for parents that are seeking a little mealtime help that will aid them in sticking to that resolution to get their child to eat better this year:

  • Oh yes, it's personal. Your toddler's personality plays a huge role when it comes to how he or she will respond to new foods. It's important to understand your child's personality as you're offering up a world of food to her so keep this in mind as you're presenting that lovingly prepared dish. For example, independent children may prefer to have their own toddler-sized eating area while your short attention spanned child might be prone to grazing, rarely sitting down for an entire meal. If "no" is your tyke's favorite word, then offer limited choices so he has fewer things to say "no" to. While it may be difficult to keep your cool, just remain calm as your little one is testing your limits. This, too, shall pass!

    "Try to understand your child's point of view," suggests Schmidt. "A big new world of discovery surrounds your child every day. He needs to feel in control of some part of it. Work with your child's personality to help him or her ease into trying new foods. Stay consistent and soon enough your toddler's nutritional outlook will change."

  • Don't confuse palate preferences with an absent appetite. In general, your toddler's growth rate slows in comparison to the first year, so don't be alarmed if the insatiable hunger of infancy fades into a more casual interest in food moving into those toddler years. That bowl of oatmeal that your toddler used to eat in one sitting may now sit cold on the table and that once beloved cheese offering is no longer something that your child jumps for joy over. If this sounds familiar, Schmidt says don't despair! Chances are it's not that your child no longer enjoys eating those foods. He's probably just not as hungry as he used to be.

    "Due to their fluctuating appetites, skipping a meal or two is normal for most toddlers," Schmidt explains. "It's very important to allow them to listen to their own internal hunger cues. Healthy toddlers self-regulate their food intake surprisingly well! While it's perfectly normal for most toddlers to fast at times, you should still call your doctor if you feel that their fasting is unusual or excessive. Also be aware of appetite busters such as grazing, teething, colds, ear infections, fatigue, stress, inactivity, filling up on fluids such as milk or juice before a meal, or short attention spans. If you feel that any of these might be the culprit for your meal-skipping toddler, just make the appropriate adjustments so you can get back on track."

    "Of course, growth spurts are still common occurrences with toddlers," she adds, "so don't be alarmed if you do come across days when your toddler wolfs down everything in sight during a growth spurt or when coming off a two-meal food fast. Remember that your child knows when he or she is hungry, so pay attention to their cues and be ready to roll with it."

  • If at first you don't succeed.try, try again! Giving up too soon and labeling your toddler as a certain type of eater is the number one mistake parents make in regards to feeding their kids. Research shows that it takes 8 to 15 times of introducing a new food to a child for him to accept it. That means you need to offer that food an average of 10 times before your child will consider eating it. Unfortunately, most parents tend to give up after three tries, missing a golden opportunity to add something new to their child's menu. Persistent and frequent offerings of a certain food does take a little patience, but one day your tyke will come around and realize that he actually does like broccoli and carrots!

    "Children will respond by behaving in the way that gets them attention," adds Schmidt. "If they are labeled as picky, they will act that way and thus exacerbate the problem. Try not to react dramatically if your child turns his nose up to a food and resist the urge to label him as the 'hater of all that is green.' He will pick up on your reaction and repeat his behavior again and again. Remain nonchalant and try to offer it again at a later date. Remember to try at least 10 times and try different cooking methods and presentation techniques to make the food more interesting."

  • Put your little buddy on kitchen duty. If you think about it, your experience in the kitchen (or lack thereof) directly reflects your own comfort level with experimenting when it comes to new food tastes and combinations. Allowing children to participate in age appropriate tasks in the kitchen such as stirring and measuring ingredients gives them a sense that they participated in the process of preparing their meal. The sense of pride and ownership they feel will make them excited to share it with the rest of the family, and therefore more likely to become a participating member at mealtimes.

    "I have made many healthy recipes with my toddler kitchen helpers," Schmidt asserts, "And whether they eat most of it during the prep phase or from the plate at the table, at least that nutrition gets down in a fun and memorable way. Children love to feel like they can help with their parents' kitchen tasks and respond in a very positive way. It can also be a great opportunity for you to delve into some important nutritional lessons. Having a hands-on experience with selecting healthy ingredients and the importance of sanitary food preparation are valuable skills for any kid to learn."

  • Remember that french fries are not a healthy vegetable! Okay.let's face it—most of us succumb to fast food at some point. It tastes good, it's easy and it comes with toys—a winning combination for parents of picky eaters who are already strapped for time! Yet despite what the marketing execs at fast food chains want you to think, french fries are not a healthy vegetable choice. Research reveals that in the United States, by the time a child is 18 months old, the number one vegetable they consume is (you guessed it!) the french fry. What's more, over half of all two- to three-year-olds don't get enough daily fruits and veggies.

    "Not surprisingly, toddlers who eat fast food regularly have higher intakes of fat, salt, cholesterol and calories in addition to lower intakes of vitamins, minerals and fiber," says Schmidt. "That's why it's important not to make fast food a habit. Sure, it's okay on occasion, but only in moderation. And when the drive-thru is unavoidable, it's best to steer clear of battered, creamy, saucy, salty and giant-sized selections."

  • In addition to that drive-thru, also avoid other childhood obesity culprits. Fast food isn't the only offender in the childhood obesity epidemic. You should also avoid feeding your toddler fried foods, processed meats, candy, desserts and sweetened drinks such as sodas and juices. Most fried foods not only add saturated fat, but also sugar or salt to the diet. In addition, the high temperatures used during frying cause a carcinogenic chemical called acrylamide to form—and carcinogenic chemicals should not be on anyone's menu, let alone your toddler's!

    Processed meats to avoid include bologna, bacon, hot dogs and sausages. These are all high in sodium, carcinogenic nitrites, and saturated fat. Candy and desserts are high in sugar and saturated fat and some can even contain synthetic trans fats.

    "These poor food choices as a whole dramatically increase a child's risk of diabetes and obesity," adds Schmidt. "In addition to all the sugary foods that many toddlers regularly eat, recent data show that 27 percent of toddlers are eating bacon, hot dogs and sausage—not a healthy diet!"

  • Think outside the (pizza) box. We've all been at fault of giving in to the guilty pleasures of unhealthy food. Quite simply, they taste good. But making those foods a regular part of any diet can have lasting harmful effects. The good news is that most kid-favorite comfort foods, such as mac 'n cheese, grilled cheese sandwiches, hot dogs, french fries and pizza can be easily adapted into healthier versions. Choose whole wheat or whole grain pasta for macaroni and cheese and use a cheese that is low in sodium and contains no artificial flavors or colors. Grilled cheese sandwiches can be baked with whole grain bread and healthy cheeses that contain no artificial additives but still contain the gooey goodness of your child's favorite lunch treat.

    "There are many healthy alternatives to your toddler's favorite treats on the market today," explains Schmidt, "You just have to know where to find them. Hot dog, sausage and deli meat alternatives can be found in brands such as Shelton's, Organic Prairie, Lightlife, Applewood Farms, Healthy Choice and Dietstel Turkey. The Annie's brand makes a variety of healthy mac 'n cheese mixes if for busy moms who need a short cut. There are also plenty of low fat and vegan alternatives for you to choose from as well. Just be sure you read the labels carefully to make sure the sodium content is not more than 140 mg per serving in whatever food you choose."

    French fries and pizza are other favorites that are easy to swap for healthier versions. You can make your own fries by slicing potatoes or sweet potatoes into fry shapes, tossing in a little olive or canola oil and roasting them on a baking sheet at about 400 degrees for about 5 to 10 minutes on each side. Sweet potatoes offer the added benefit of high vitamin A, vitamin C, potassium and vitamin B's. If your kid craves pizza, invite her to get in on the action. She will enjoy placing toppings and rolling out the dough. For a quick prep, you can buy premade whole wheat pizza dough at the market and roll it out into a thin crust. Top with a low sodium pizza sauce and have your little kitchen helpers sprinkle on some low fat mozzarella cheese. Choose your healthy toppings, bake and serve! Avoid the pepperoni, sausage, extra cheese, deep dish and white crust and you have a healthy pizza dish!

  • The apple of your eye will notice that apple on your plate. Your children learn a lot from you, and they are picking up on your habits whether your realize it or not. They look to your behaviors and habits to know how to act, so make sure you are setting a healthy example. Eat healthy foods in front of your children and when you're out at a restaurant or buffet, make good choices and help them to learn how to fill their own plates with a balanced meal. Tiny tots love to be just like their mom or dad, and if they notice that you're eating your fruits and veggies, they'll want to get in on the action too! If you're only sipping on coffee for breakfast as you're begging your child to fill his belly with that bowl of nutritious oatmeal, you're not setting a good example for him. Remember that children, while not always at first, do mimic the behaviors of their parents, so start eating healthy now. Those little eyes are watching!

    "Now is the time when you can make the most difference in your toddler's eating behavior," says Schmidt. "Studies have shown that food preferences are shaped between the ages of two and three. Be a role model for healthy eating and manners in front of your toddler. Even if the results are not immediate, being a role model will pay off in the long run!"

  • Sugar, Salt and Spice are not always so nice. Americans eat a lot of sugar. In the United States, the average intake of sugar for everyone ages two and older is 20.5 teaspoons a day! In a nation where diabetes and obesity are such prevalent issues, parents need to learn how to start skimming some sugar from their children's diets by checking food labels and offering up healthier options to their children. While some sugar intake is inevitable, its your job to moderate how much and how often they eat sugar, and to make a concerted effort to cut back where you can. And sugar's not the only culprit—salt can be a big problem, too.

    "If you're inclined to add a dash of salt to your child's plate, take a step back and ask yourself if it's really necessary," suggests Schmidt. "We already get plenty of salt naturally in our diets, so do your best to keep that shaker off the table! Think about the salt content of the food before you add more and taste the food to see if it really needs a sprinkle or two. Try to keep the sodium content down by using half of the salt called for in recipes and by choosing food brands that offer low salt and sodium varieties. Remember that fast foods and processed foods are salt magnets, so limiting your toddler's salt intake is a must!"

    After taking salt and sugar intake into consideration, make sure all spices are introduced slowly to your toddler, adds Schmidt. Children have more taste buds than adults and therefore have an increased sensitivity to flavors. Depending on family or cultural customs, toddlers' preferences for spices will vary, but it's best to err on the side of caution and take it slow when adding spices to your child's food.

"It's never too early, or too late to start introducing nutritious and healthy foods to your toddler," concludes Schmidt. "By working with your child and introducing that healthy variety of foods today, you're helping him get the nutrients that he needs to grow a healthy body. Remember, you really are what you eat so make this year the year that you resolve to set an example for your child by eating healthier foods yourself and by encouraging your child to make better choices. These healthy habits will last him his whole life through." Check out more of Schmidt's tips!

About the Author:

Christina Schmidt, MS, is a nutritionist and a certified nutrition educator who has been featured on NBC's Today Show and has written nutrition articles for The Bump magazine. She is the author of The Baby Bistro, The Baby Bistro Box and Toddler Bistro Box. Christina also is President of Baby Bistro Brands and lives in Santa Barbara, California.

For more information, please visit babybistrobrands.com.

About the Book:

The Toddler Bistro: Child-Approved Recipes and Expert Nutrition Advice for the Toddler Years (Bull Publishing Company, 2009, ISBN: 978-1-933503-

Article Reviewed: August 15, 2012
Copyright © 2014 Healthy Magazine

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