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Tater tots: New ideas for picky eaters

Published on: February 01, 2010

Child eating healthyYou’d think that we’d have it down by now. After all, we’ve been in the business of feeding our kids for a long time. But the same tired old questions keep cropping up: Why can’t we get our kids to eat vegetables? How bad are chips and pop, anyway? Is chicken soup really good for the soul?

When I was growing up, “pasta” wasn’t code for “noodles”; you’d never dream of serving butterless veggies; and TV dinners were an absolute last resort.

We now inhabit a world of organic, whole-wheat, high-fiber penne; there’s a vegetable hybrid called “broccolini”; and TV dinners, while slightly higher on the culinary chain than they once were, are still an absolute last resort.

Yet the basics haven’t changed: Everyone wants their kids to eat healthfully. But how can we make that happen?

Luckily, Dr. Janice Woolley is here to offer some answers. Co-author of Food for Tots: The Complete Guide to Feeding Preschoolers, Woolley, now retired from her Mercer Island pediatric practice, has a lot to say about nutrition, childhood obesity, even vegetables. Check out her Food for Tots website.

What is the best way to keep your kids away from junk food?

Remember that you know more about nutrition than your child does. You are in charge of what to buy at the store and what to serve. Don’t give in to whining for junk food, but do allow your child to have occasional treats. Even young children can learn about what foods are best for their health. Make good nutrition appealing by referring to healthy foods as “growing, going and glowing” foods. Tell your child that you wouldn’t be a good parent if you allowed a lot of junk food.

What kinds of foods and eating habits lead to childhood obesity?

A major cause of childhood obesity is inactivity, due to too much time spent watching TV and playing video games rather than participating in active play. Fast foods and high-fat snack foods are part of the problem also. A medium order of French fries provides about 460 calories. That is more than one-fourth of the total recommended daily intake for an active 5-year-old child. Eating more meals at home not only saves money, but also is much better for the entire family.

What are some great ideas for after-school snacks?

School-age children usually come home from school with an appetite! Plan ahead and have some quick but nutritious foods available for munching. Try some of these ideas: cut-up apples or orange sections, peanut butter on celery, whole-wheat pita bread and hummus, fruit and yogurt smoothies, cheese and whole grain crackers, a hard-boiled egg, cottage cheese with canned fruit, half a bagel broiled with pizza sauce and cheese on top, air-popped popcorn, trail mix of nuts, dried cranberries or raisins and dried banana chips, or unsugared cereal and milk. Avoid food with empty calories, such as candy, pop and chips.

How can I be sure that my child is eating enough?

If your child is healthy and growing normally, he is taking in enough calories. It’s important not to make eating a power struggle. Your job as a parent is to provide healthy food and then to allow your child to decide how much to eat. Pressing children to eat when they are not hungry can lead to overeating or eating disorders. Children whose eating is overcontrolled don’t learn to recognize their internal hunger and fullness signals. Of course, if your child is unhealthy, losing weight or talking about losing weight, a medical exam is needed.

How can I get my child to try new, healthy foods?

Some children will try almost any food that they see others eating, while others will try almost nothing new. If you have a child who loves routine, such as insisting on the same bedtime story every night, you may have a child who is uncomfortable with change. Children can also be hesitant about new foods for other reasons. There is probably not any “one size fits all” solution.

Some things to try:

  • Make sure your child sees you and others enjoying new foods.
  • Encourage your child to try only a tiny bite.
  • Offer the food, but don’t force your child to try it.
  • Don’t be surprised if your child tries a bite but then takes it out of his mouth.
  • If your child rejects the food, try it again another day.
  • Be patient. Most adults enjoy foods that they disliked as children.

How does good nutrition help kids learn better at school?

Studies show that eating a nutritious breakfast has a measurable positive effect on children’s school performance. One often overlooked factor is that many children do not go to bed early enough to wake up in time for a good breakfast; plus, they are too tired to be hungry before school. So, good nutrition in the morning actually begins with an earlier bedtime the night before. It also depends upon some planning to have easy-to-prepare, nutritious breakfast foods on hand. Avoid heavily sugared and artificially colored cold cereals or pastries. These are largely empty calories and won’t provide the fuel needed for an active brain.

How can I get my child to eat vegetables?

Some children’s theme song should be “It’s not easy eating green!” Children often have a preference for sweet flavors and have to develop a taste for vegetables. Try serving vegetables with dips, cheese sauce, butter or even ketchup. Try adding grated or puréed vegetables to soups, muffins, sandwiches, casseroles and other foods. Don’t give up — keep offering vegetables and letting your child see you enjoy them. Offer extra fruits, especially dark-colored ones, such as plums, apricots and berries. They provide similar vitamins and fiber.

Linda Morgan is ParentMap's associate editor and the author of Beyond Smart: Boosting Your Child’s Social, Emotional, and Academic Potential. Learn more about Linda at

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