Healthy Eating Habits for Children
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Healthy Eating Habits for Children

Dr. Ava Siegler explains the importance of teaching a child healthy eating habits early on.

Getting Off to a Good Start

Dr. Ava

Q. I've read that the eating habits a child develops early on affect him throughout his life. How can I make sure that I'm giving my child the best start possible? --Feeding Frenzy

Dear Feeding Frenzy: To help your baby build good feelings about food, try to think positively about her appetite ("What a good eater!"), rather than feeling overwhelmed or resentful ("Isn't she ever going to be satisfied?"). Remember that newborn babies need to nurse every 2 to 3 hours throughout the day and night to develop their brains as well as their bodies. While you may envy a friend whose 3-month-old sleeps through the night, that baby may actually be missing important meals.


By 3 to 4 months, most newborns can go a little longer between feedings -- usually about 3 or 4 hours. But if your baby is hungry ahead of time, don't let him get miserable. Remember, your sensitive response to your baby's cries intensifies the empathic connection between the two of you.

Starting Solids

As your baby begins to add some solid foods to her diet (usually during the second half of her first year), pay attention to what she likes and doesn't like. Babies do have preferences! Don't mix foods together when they're first introduced. You need to learn your baby's preferences, and you also need to know about allergies that may emerge. When trying a new food, give her a small taste and allow her time to respond before offering another spoonful. An eagerly opened mouth means the food's a hit, a scrunched up face or spitting out the food means it's a miss -- try it again in three or four weeks.


In the second year of life, your child begins to develop more independence -- which shows at the dinner table, too. This is the age when willful battles over eating are easily provoked, so be careful. Never force a child to eat. It's a setup for disaster! When you overpower a youngster's appetite, he learns to ignore his body's signals and to associate eating with stress and tension. He also comes to believe that you have no regard for his feelings. You need to respect your child's choices, including those he makes about food.


The Picky Eater

Since a toddler doesn't grow as rapidly as an infant, it's normal for your 2- or 3-year-old's appetite to diminish, and not unusual for her to become "picky" about food. Instead of forcing the issue, suggest nutritionally comparable choices when the food you've presented doesn't appeal. (Offer yogurt instead of milk, or carrots instead of squash.) Most importantly, don't worry if your child misses a meal. If you don't make an issue out of it, she'll be hungry for the next one. Also, keep this in mind: Studies show that when a toddler is offered a wide variety of foods and is left to work it out for herself, she will make nutritious choices. Young children tend to balance their nutrition over time, so instead of fussing because your child didn't eat her chicken last night, consider what she ate during the whole week, and you'll find she's probably doing fairly well.


Taking control of your child's eating only turns you into the "food police," and him into a "food criminal" who will begin to use food in unhealthy ways. Giving your child control over what he eats helps him feel more independent. To help your little one feel more autonomous, offer finger foods (such as Cheerios, grapes cut in half, string beans, pieces of pear or apple, or slices of cheese). "I want to do it" is the battle cry of the toddler, but it can be frustrating when his manual dexterity is not up to the challenge of a knife or fork. Balancing foods that require silverware with finger foods encourages motor skills and a sense of accomplishment.

Meals and their Meanings

By the time your child is 3 years old, she is able to link special events with special foods and the people who make them (Mom's chocolate fudge cake on birthdays, Grandma's cornbread stuffing on Thanksgiving). Food begins to take on emotional meanings. Be aware of these meanings because they can derail the healthy eating habits you want your child to have. For example, be wary of using food as a reward ("If you clean up your toys, you can have an ice pop.") or as a punishment ("No cleanup, no ice pop."). Using food this way can teach your youngster to rely on eating to feel good about herself, instead of gaining self-esteem from her accomplishments.

Beware if eating is a form of distraction in your family ("Please don't fuss while I'm driving. Here, eat a cracker."). This can produce the mindless eating that adults indulge in when they're bored or restless. Do you offer food as a form of comfort? ("Have some cookies to take your mind off that scraped knee.") This can establish a life-long habit of using food as a consolation. Of course, we all use food in these ways sometimes, but it's important not to set up patterns that can put your child's health at risk later in life.

Finally, don't forget that kids do what we do, not what we say. They identify with our eating patterns, so make sure you aren't always at the refrigerator, or always dieting and anxious about your weight.

As your child grows, enjoy mealtimes together, but don't make eating the only focus of family life. Take a walk or a bike ride instead of going for pizza, take a swim or play checkers instead of making fudge. Doing this teaches your child to eat to live -- not live to eat!

Dr. Siegler is the director of the Institute for Child, Adolescent and Family Studies in New York City, and the author of two award-winning books for parents, What Should I Tell the Kids? A Parent's Guide to Real Problems in the Real World (Plume, 1994), and The Essential Guide to the New Adolescence: How to Raise an Emotionally Healthy Teenager (Plume, 1998). She is married and the mother of two children.