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Children and Food Preferences


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 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."

     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!"

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