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Feeding Your Preschooler

Set the Table, Set the Stage for Future Food Choices
Wouldn't it be great if your four-year-old never again turned up her nose at fruits and vegetables? What parent in her right mind wouldn't jump for joy when her five-year-old drinks the recommended three glasses of milk every day, without the whining? You may even want to hug your daughter when she finally decides she likes the homemade chicken pot pie that she has refused to try the first ten times you served it. (Believe me, I've been there.)

If you want these dream scenarios played out at your table, taking the lead will help. Studies show that adults who consume healthy foods have children who eat a more nutritious diet. It's not enough to simply insist your children finish their chicken or polish off their potatoes—you must, too.

The Role of Model
Little ones are like sponges. They soak up what's going on in their immediate surroundings, including your attitude toward food. Even when it appears that they are not paying attention, kids pick up cues about how to act during mealtimes (for example, that you value staying seated, using your napkin instead of your sleeve to wipe your face, and that it's better to converse with other family members than it is to start a food fight); what foods are held in high regard; and what to think about trying new foods. Providing a feeding environment with a minimum of distractions, including no television or loud music, shows children that mealtimes are important parts of the day meant for more than sharing food. For a breast- or bottle-fed infant, calm surroundings provide a pleasant opportunity to bond with Mom or Dad on a one-to-one basis.

Your enthusiasm for healthy foods goes a long way with your kids. When you dig into a new low-fat casserole recipe, finish your vegetables, and choose fruit over cookies for dessert, your children may do the same. Likewise, when you withhold treats such as candy and ice cream and use them as a bribe for finishing dinner, you send the signal that sweets are bargaining tools, which could prove problematic in the long run.

Parents who regularly offer kids new foods expand their child's food universe. Serving up couscous instead of rice or preparing a roll-up instead of a standard sandwich may sound simplistic to you, but it allows kids to imagine all sorts of food possibilities and may even serve as a conversation starter about how children in other parts of the country or the world eat and live. Dining at restaurants on foods not normally eaten at home, such as Middle Eastern, Thai, or Chinese fare, can do the same to broaden a child's horizons. Try new cuisines. Order take-out. That way, the pressure's off and children seem more willing to relax and try new foods.

At three, four, or five, each day of a child's life seems filled with discovery, including how others eat. The people your children see on a regular basis—babysitters, relatives, and peers—expand their ideas about food, as does watching television. Contact with adult caregivers, close relatives, and other children with different eating habits at day care, in nursery school, and in kindergarten affect how children view food. Some of this influence may be positive. Witnessing a peer at nursery school or day care eat a certain fruit or vegetable could spark an interest in that food and lead to a request for it. Eating family style in a day care setting can often result in children willingly eating foods they may refuse at home. My kids are much better eaters at my babysitter's house. Eating with their contemporaries cuts down on fussing and fosters acceptance of a wider variety of foods.

While your influence may wane somewhat as your child becomes increasingly autonomous, how you eat at home tends to serve as the strongest influence on your child's eating habits for life. Take the Family Nutrition Assessment to see if your family needs to make a change.

Mommy See, Mommy Do
When it comes to eating, kids mimic their parents. It seems that moms hold particular sway over their child's food choices. Researchers say that when mothers pick healthy foods such as milk, their children are more likely to follow suit. The Journal of the American Dietetic Association reports that youngsters are more apt to drink milk when their mothers do, too. Other studies corroborate the power of Mom's influence on milk drinking, suggesting that children are less likely to consume milk if their mothers don't drink it, even when Mom insists that her kids drink up.

Copyright © 2002 by Elizabeth M. Ward. Excerpted from Healthy Foods, Healthy Kids with permission of its publisher, Adams Media Corporation.

To order this book visit Amazon.com.


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