Published on 06/09/97

Help Children Set Good Eating Habits Early

You want your children to eat healthy foods. But wanting and getting aren't the same thing.

"Anyone who has tried to make a child eat certain foods knows how frustrating it can be," said Judy Harrison, a food and nutrition expert with the University of Georgia Extension Service.

Gail Hanula, who coordinates a cancer education project for the UGA Extension Service, agrees. But both say it's not impossible to get children to choose fruits and vegetables over sweets and chips.

Here are some tips:

* Start with your own plate. Children notice whether you eat your fruits and vegetables. Be a good role model.

* Serve new foods along with familiar foods.

* Introduce them to unknown tastes by telling them what to expect. Is the taste or texture similar to something they like?

* Encourage your child to take just one bite.

"Eating one bite is manageable for a child," Harrison says. "But making her clean her plate not only sets the stage for battle, but may be forcing her to overeat."

* Keep the serving sizes small. A large portion can intimidate a child.

* After trying something new, ask your child what he thought. If he didn't like it, try again when his taste buds have grown up a little bit.

"Even if a child dislikes a vegetable one time, don't give up," Harrison says. "As a child grows, his taste buds change. Vegetables that were too bitter once may taste fine later. And the more you serve a vegetable, the more familiar it becomes."

* Children often enjoy raw vegetables more than cooked because the flavor is often milder. If you do cook them, try a variety of methods. Avoid always frying or sauteeing vegetables. Instead, try steaming, broiling, baking or grilling.

"Nutritionally, fresh and frozen vegetables and fruits are very similar," Harrison said. "Commercially frozen produce is processed soon after it is picked. Canned fruits and vegetables do lose some nutrients because of the heat used in processing."

* Children usually like fruit because it is soft, easy to chew and tastes sweet. Buy a variety of fresh in-season fruits and make them easily available to your children.

"Many fruits have an edible peel," Harrison said. "But that doesn't mean your child will eat it. The peel adds fiber to the diet, along with vitamins and minerals. But eating a peeled peach is better than eating no peach at all. It's a healthier choice than eating chips."

Snacks are crucial for growing children. Just make sure the snacks contribute nutrients and not empty calories to their diet.

"If children develop healthier food habits early, they will have a solid foundation for a lifetime of good eating," Harrison said.