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PARENTING : COVER STORY : Meals That Appeal : Experts urge adults to create healthy eating habits by setting an example. They say moderation is the key.

October 21, 1994|GARY KLEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The family was seated around the table, hungry for dinner but even hungrier for a conversational breakthrough. Our 20-month-old son Christopher was on the verge of speaking his first complete sentence, and it seemed inevitable that he would utter it during the spirited confusion that is mealtime.

It didn't take long.

"I . . ." he began, grabbing his plate of vegetables and potatoes.

"want . . ."

Oh my God, he's going to do it.

"Coke!"

What?

"I want chips," he added earnestly with a smile. "I want cookies."

My wife and I crumbled.

After feeding our three children what we thought was a well-balanced diet with occasional snacks, our son's vocabulary sounded like a primer for a junk-food junkie. There was no denying it. We swore we never would, but we had become slaves to convenience.

Apparently, we were not alone.

Experts say that helping children cultivate good eating habits in today's fast-paced, fast-food world can be difficult for even the most conscientious mothers and fathers. But they stress that it's an achievable goal that can lay the groundwork for good health and a lifetime of knowledgeable food choices.

"It's important to provide a good foundation, to educate children early," said Amy Pearson, chief clinical dietitian at Granada Hills Community Hospital. "They may deviate from what they've been taught as they become teen-agers and get out on their own, but they usually fall back on what they knew as a kid."

Parents who practice good eating habits themselves are apt to see their children do the same. And it is never too early to set an example. "The most important thing a parent can do is sit down with their children so they can all eat a meal together," said Marla Dishman, an Encino-based dietitian. "That's probably more important than what food is being served. Because, in general, for kids to develop good eating habits, they need models."

They also need protein, vitamins and all the other good things that come from eating healthy foods. But as most parents know, what looks great on the nutritional chart doesn't always appear--or taste--as good to children when it's on their plate.

I once tried convincing my 4-year-old daughter Casey to sample some of the eggplant sandwich I was eating. "It's good for you," I insisted. "Just a bite. Just one bite." After a tearful half-hour she relented. One nibble and one murderous expression later she splattered my shirt with the tomato sauce-covered sandwich.

Lesson: Fighting kids over food is no fun. Neither is it productive. Respect a child's ability to choose.

"If you want to be very forceful and make them eat, they're either going to throw it up or sit there and cry for an hour," said Eileen Zelig of Chatsworth, who has three children. "You have to remember, it's their body and their mouth. If you don't let them make the little choices now, they are not going to be able to make bigger choices when they are teen-agers."

Experts confirm this conclusion. Whether it's a very fussy eater, or simply a youngster exercising control in a normal phase of development, pediatricians and dietitians say parents should not coerce children to eat a particular food.

An overly restrictive approach can be as destructive in the long run as allowing children to eat anything they want, anytime they want it. And occasional, or even regular, trips to a fast-food restaurant will not spell doom. Moderation is the key.

"If my family can eat properly 80% of the time, I consider that success," said Linda Vickers, a dietitian and mother of three who teaches nutrition classes at Moorpark College. "If the other 20% is spent at McDonald's, Taco Bell or whatever, that's OK. This is reality."

Vickers and others say unrealistic parental expectations can often lead to unhealthy turmoil at mealtime. Parents, of course, should introduce new foods to their children, but neither fret nor fly off the handle if the offering is rejected.

Dr. Steven Nishibayashi, a Glendale pediatrician, agrees: "Just because they don't take it one time, doesn't mean they won't like it forever."

Dishman suggests that parents adopt a policy that allows children to try one bite of a new food. If they like it, great. If they don't, no problem. Reintroduce it another time. Also, take time to view food from a child's perspective. "Instead of canned, slimy fruit or vegetables, most kids prefer foods that are hard and crunchy," she said. "Something they can pick up, hold in their hands and carry around."

To that end, make good foods available and accessible during meals and as snacks. Keep bananas on the countertop, and grapes, sliced oranges, apples and other fresh fruit in the refrigerator. Snap peas, celery and carrot sticks are crunchy, ready-to-eat vegetables.

And, don't be afraid to be creative.

"My children refused to eat broccoli the first time I cooked it," Zelig said. "But one time we ordered from a Chinese take-out and they were saying, 'Oh, look at the little green trees, the trees taste good, Mommy.' Now they like broccoli."

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