Thoughts to Chew On – Parents Need to Be Gatekeepers and Keep the Junk Food Out

Q: I’ve followed to the rule breastfeeding my child, introducing him to solid foods at about five months while continuing to breastfeed. Other mothers are telling me to watch him closely now, as he is well into his twos and eating ‘people’ food, because this is the time when bad nutrition habits form. What should I be watching out for?

A: Kids do what you do, not what you say. How do you eat? Do you eat together? Do you have your refrigerator and cabinets filled with your bad habits? If so, you are the gatekeeper responsible for keeping junk out, only to have it occasionally at a family dinner.
In terms of picky eating issues, frequency of exposure in a non-pressuring manner is the key to preventing confrontations, such as refusing to eat what is given them. Kids often have normal food ‘jags’ — when they want a certain food daily for a while and then change to another. Roll with it, and always provide a variety. Don’t force — you will never win, only to induce the bad habits of your child only accepting the processed, unhealthy foods.

Q: I’ve heard so much about obesity today and kids developing high cholesterol and diabetes. How can I instill healthy eating habits so these health issues don’t become a problem? What new foods should I be introducing Jack to?

A: Family meals are the single best predictor of healthy kids, both physically and emotionally. There is less risk of giving kids quick, processed, high-fat, salty, and sugary food that you wouldn’t eat yourself. For busy parents and kids, there are plenty of resources, even on food networks on television or websites, for quick, healthful, family-friendly meals.
Exposure to frequently eaten foods allows the development of a tolerance and acceptance of them. But that only works if parents serve as gatekeepers, siphoning out the junk, which children often demand. I used to say to my own little ones at home that “chicken nuggets don’t live here” — instead, they live at restaurants like McDonald’s. But you can easily make your own healthy chicken nuggets, in no time at all, at home using chicken tenders purchased at the meat counter of your local grocery store (or slicing strips from chicken breasts that you purchase). If you Google ‘healthy chicken tenders,’ you will find a variety of recipes online that involve coating them with cornflakes or panko bread crumbs, for example.
Instill the concept of ‘sometimes’ foods, and limit eating out. Always provide fruits, veggies, low-fat dairy, low-fat proteins, and whole grains. There are also reduced-fat versions of the occasional higher-fat ‘sometimes’ foods. Hungry kids who don’t drink excessive amounts of juice or other sweet drinks along with grazing (eating and snacking all day) are less picky at mealtime.

Q: How should snacks between meals be handled?
A: Young children have small stomachs. As a result, they require snacks, which can contribute to one-third of their calories. Schedule mini-meals every two to three hours. Most kids need at least two snacks — one in the afternoon and one in the evening. Avoid empty-calorie, processed snacks and sweet liquid shakes marketed to kids and parents. Hungry kids are less picky, and will be just as happy with fruits, yogurt, cheese, whole grains, nuts (if safe for age/allergy), or leftovers … as long as the cookies, chips, and other bad temptations are not in view.

Q: I haven’t brought Jack to McDonald’s yet, or let him have an ice-cream cone, like some of the mothers I know. Am I a bad mother for depriving him of these treats that other kids enjoy? What is appropriate?

A: Absolutely not. Once kids get a taste for processed foods with excessive salt and sugar, their taste buds prefer it. It is not deprivation to withhold junk food, and there is no need for a toddler to experience it at that age. They do not have an understanding of it as a once-in-a-while treat, and it will alter their taste preferences. They should not think that potatoes, for example, only come in fried forms! Again, with regard to ice cream, a once-in-a-while treat while out on a summer family adventure is a great way to enjoy it as part of an active day outside of the home. As kids get older, ice cream may be part of a healthy diet as a snack along with fruits, nuts, and other health treats.

Q: Any stories that I’ve read about overweight kids talk about the importance of eating together as a family. Does this apply to a 2 1/2-year-old, and what should I do?

A: Absolutely. Parents are their primary role models, and kids eat what they do … or don’t. They need to have fruits, veggies, whole grains, lean proteins, and more regularly to learn to accept them. If they do not eat with their family, often they receive unhealthy, kid-friendly, processed foods that are heavily marketed today.

Q: I’ve heard that too much juice isn’t good. Should I stop letting Jack have juice? And how can I help him at an early age to avoid sugary drinks, which so many kids are dependent on today?

A: There is no need for any juices, but if you do give Jack some, the recommendation is for no more than four ounces for toddlers. Never give juice within one hour before meals or with a meal, as this will surely displace his appetite. It’s best to offer a variety of fruits and veggies (provide some at each meal and snack), and give him water to drink anytime. Milk is often given at breakfast, at an afternoon snack, and at bedtime. Even milk given at meals can displace appetite and fill kids up before they’ve even touched their foods. Toddlers would prefer the easy way out and just drink to satisfy their hunger, rather than work at chewing or even sitting down!

Q: So many people take vitamins and supplements today. What should I be considering for Jack?

A: It is rare to obtain enough vitamin D without a supplement. Also, toddlers are at higher risk of anemia since their intake of iron is lower. Therefore, it is recommended to provide a liquid multi-vitamin with iron, or one-half of a chewable complete multi-vitamin with minerals (change to a full multi-vitamin at age 4).

Q: Anything else that I should be aware of?

A: You will find plenty of helpful information the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics website, eatright.org; or myplate.org. While visiting these websites, you will find pediatric references for the entire family, as well as your questions answered on many topics.

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