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Eat right and your kids are likely to follow

April 17, 2006|Sally Squires | Special to The Times

Want to get your children to eat more fruits and vegetables without resorting to threats, bribes or begging? Eat these healthful foods with your kids.

That's just one of the conclusions from new research on improving the eating habits of children and teens.

Such foods provide key vitamins, minerals, healthful phyto-nutrients and fiber. Plus, they're low in calories and high in flavor. But more than kids' health is at stake.

A study of 36,000 Minnesota teens points to a correlation with academic performance. Teens who earned the highest grades generally were the ones who ate more fruit and vegetables.

Just stocking plenty of fruit and vegetables doesn't help kids boost their intake. The foods must also be "appetizing and accessible," says Christie Befort, a preventive medicine researcher at the University of Kansas Medical Center.

"Canned fruit buried in the pantry is not something they are going to eat," said Befort, author of a new study of fruit and vegetable consumption, published in March in the Journal of the American Dietetic Assn. "They're not likely to eat frozen fruit in the freezer either, but having fruit and vegetables sitting there to just grab and eat or cut up and ready to go in the refrigerator, makes them easily accessible."

Studies of children including those as young as 2 and teenagers consistently show that what parents eat can shape what their offspring consume.

"That's the strongest of all factors in influencing children's eating behavior," says Mary Story, a professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota. "If father is saying, 'No way I'll eat that broccoli,' then it's very likely that kids won't eat it either."

To help improve your children's diet:

* Provide plenty of hidden vegetables. Teens participating in focus groups told University of Minnesota researchers that they welcomed foods with hidden vegetables. Favorites that don't seem like the real thing include salsa, guacamole, hummus and baba ghanouj. Spaghetti sauce, vegetable stir-fries, bean burritos and soups such as minestrone, tomato and green pea are other options. Pumpkin pie -- make it without a crust in small, individual containers -- also counts as a veggie. Baked sweet-potato "fries" are another healthful choice.

* Exploit hungry moments. Most kids are ravenous after school, "so there's a really high chance that they will eat fruit and vegetables," says Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, professor of epidemiology at the University of Minnesota. Dinner preparation is another high-appetite opportunity, so have fresh baby carrots, sugar snap peas and other veggies ready with dip. Also, place fruit and vegetables in strategic places where hungry kids scrounging for food are most likely to find them: on the kitchen counter and washed and cut up in bags on eye-level shelves in the front of the refrigerator.

* Reach for the whole, not the juice. Fruit provides more fiber and fewer calories than juice. The American Academy of Pediatrics advises delaying introduction of 100% juice until at least 6 months of age. Then serve it only from a cup (to prevent dental problems). The group also recommends limiting juice to 4 to 6 ounces a day for children ages 1 to 6 and 8 to 12 ounces daily for those ages 7 to 18. Smart juice option: orange juice. Four ounces provides about a day's worth of vitamin C. Also vegetable juice, which isn't sweetened and is low in calories.

* Try 10. That's the average number of times that a child needs to try a new food before liking it. "You can't expect kids to like new foods right away," Story says. So keep offering fruit and vegetables even if your child seems uninterested. "Familiarity should increase their intake," adds Neumark-Sztainer.

* Offer options. When Story's three sons were young, she discovered that if she served two or three different vegetables at dinner, at least some of them would be eaten. "That way if they don't eat the broccoli, who cares?" she says.

* Resist the temptation to bargain. "Eat your vegetables and you can have dessert" just puts you in a power struggle over food. The pediatricians' group advises parents to choose when to eat and what food to provide. "Children then can choose what to consume."

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