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Food Fights: A Pediatrician’s Attempt to Get Her Kids to Eat Well

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My 9 tried-and-true tricks of the trade

With five kids under age 10, our dinners are often plagued by stubborn vegetable refusal, dessert gluttony, and serving size greed.  Sound familiar?  This is normal kid behavior.

Each of my children has presented a unique challenge to my best pediatric dietary practices, but they do eat well — there are no chicken nuggets or skipped vegetables in our house.  When we teach our kids to eat right, we give them much more than health — we teach them temperance and self-control.

Here are my tried-and-true tricks of the trade to get your kids to eat well:  

Young Kids Will Regulate their Own Calories

Most toddlers have a built-in dietary trick: they actually auto-regulate their own calories.  Toddlers will eat the same amount of calories each day whether those calories come from vegetables or cookies.  So, if a toddler eats one 100 calorie cookie after lunch, they will eat about 100 calories less for dinner.  Toddlers quickly learn to hold-out for their favorite foods, be it dessert, chicken nuggets, or macaroni and cheese, and they happily skip the vegetables. This is why toddlers are notoriously picky eaters.  It’s also why obesity is less common in this age group.

Armed with this knowledge, I offered my picky three-year-old only oatmeal with fruit for breakfast and a healthy lunch and dinner that included vegetables.  He started eating two or even three helpings of oatmeal for breakfast and simply skipping lunch.  He’d skip dinner too if he talked someone into giving him a mid-afternoon snack, or if he got a free cookie from the grocery store or his sister’s soccer game.  Now he’s only permitted one serving of breakfast and we try to leave him home from events that include free treats.  Occasionally we give in.  Once we took him to a business picnic and he had his fill of junk food.  He did start eating vegetables again about twenty-four hours later…

Exposure, Exposure, Exposure

Kids will eat almost anything if they are repeatedly exposed to it in a positive context. Let kids look at salad and green stuff on their plate every day.  Talk about how good you think it tastes.  Never force them to eat it.  Usually, I eat my salad and then eat half of what I put on my kids plates.  Eventually they will eat it, especially if they are not filling up on other calories.     

Kids Eat What You Eat

Healthy kids’ diets start with healthy parents’ diets.  Parenting challenges us to become better people, even when it comes to our food.  You already know that you can’t eat treats in front of your kids without them asking for some.  Your long term dietary habits will become those of your children.  What are your dietary guilty pleasures?  Do you want your kids to share them?   If not, this may be your motivation to change.

Moms actually have higher body mass indexes and are more likely to drink sweetened drinks compared to women without children.  Why?  Because parenting is hard and moms need our pick-me-ups.  If you just can’t give up a personal treat, save it for when you are alone.  I have my stash of dark chocolate hidden on a top shelf in the kitchen.

Don’t Let Your Kids Drink Their Calories

Sugary drinks are the fastest way to consume calories.  In just a few seconds, a child can consume about half their calories for the day.  Most parents are good about limiting soda, but sports drinks, lemonade, iced tea and juice can be just as bad.

The recommended serving size of juice in a toddler diet is four ounces per day, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.  That is less that almost all juice boxes.  “Mots for Tots” is a juice box brand targeted towards toddlers that provides watered down apple juice such that one-serving per day is still within the recommended range.  But even when I bought these I found my kids just begged for more.  I recommend just cutting juice out of your regular diet.  In our house, juice is a special treat reserved for birthday parties and other special events.  What about vitamins?  Whole fruits and vegetables are the best source of vitamins.

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