Today's busy parents are at a definite disadvantage in the battle to get kids to eat right. Racks of junk snacks beckon in grocery stores, and labor-intensive, nutritious meals often take a back seat to what's cooking at the drive-thru.
"Everyone would like their kids to eat right," said one Canoga Park mother. "But for a lot of parents I know, the four basic food groups are Taco Bell, McDonald's, Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken."
If that sounds painfully familiar, the good news is that the junk-food habit can be headed off early, or at the very least kept under control. What's more, experts say, it doesn't take an iron-fisted approach to ensure success in curtailing children's intake of fried foods, sweets and empty calories.
"Parents should set reasonable restrictions," said Joan Levinthal, a Woodland Hills-based dietitian. "Kids do very well when you set limits because they know what to expect. And children should definitely have a say in some of the decisions."
That is a rule that Wendy Wester and her husband have followed with their 2-year-old son, Steven. Wester, who owns a Van Nuys catering business, said the family makes a weekly trip to McDonald's or another establishment of little Steven's choice. Recently, Wester spoke of idealism and reality as she watched her son grab a Chicken McNugget between trips down the slide in the play area of a Burbank McDonald's.
"Before my son was born, I thought I would never take him to a fast-food place," Wester said. "But he really enjoys himself when we come here, and I like the fact that he eats a full meal while interacting with other kids. If I were to tell him he could not come to places like this, it would probably become even more attractive to him."
The most foolproof method for making sure children do not eat junk food at home is to not have it available. If it's not there, they can't eat it. Of course, neither can parents. "You can't take the 'Don't do as I do, do as I say,' approach with kids," said Glendale pediatrician Dr. Steven Nishibayashi.
But even if certain foods are off-limits in the home, be advised that, sooner or later, children will be in school and other places where forbidden snacks are available.
"They're going to eat them on the outside if you don't have some of them at home," said dietitian Marla Dishman. "Kids are naturally drawn to sweets, so you're better off showing them how to handle things in moderation rather than restricting them completely."
Linda Vickers, a mother of three who teaches nutrition at Moorpark College, recommends buying snacks in kid-size servings to monitor how much of a particular food a child is eating. Vickers suggests that parents allow their youngsters, and themselves, some leeway in regard to healthy eating.
"It's OK to blow it one day a week if you're doing a good job the other six," she said. "As long as it's not an everyday thing, parents should not be too concerned."