Expert advice on helping kids stay healthy through healthy eating and healthy cooking.
Whether you're pregnant or already have kids, these questions and answers about how to feed kids will give you helpful tips
on keeping your children healthy.
I'm pregnant and plan to breastfeed. Can what I eat affect my baby's food preferences later on?
If you want your child to develop a taste for healthy foods, you can start right now during your pregnancy by eating them
yourself. Food chemicals with distinct tastes and smells are transmitted to the amniotic fluid that cushions a growing baby;
the fetus swallows this fluid and can sense the flavors. Infants are exposed to flavors through breast milk, which reflects
the flavors of foods, spices and beverages in mothers’ diets. And studies suggest that babies can develop a taste for those
familiar flavors when they’re exposed to them later on in solid foods.
Julie Mennella, Ph.D., a scientist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, conducted a study in which pregnant
women planning to breastfeed were randomly assigned to one of three groups. Women in all groups consumed 1¼ cups of carrot
juice or water four days a week for three consecutive weeks during the last trimester of pregnancy and again during the first
two months of breastfeeding. One group consumed carrot juice during pregnancy and water during lactation. Another group, the
reverse (water, then carrot juice). The third group drank water both times. Later, when it came time to introduce the infants
to solid foods, the researchers observed the babies as they were fed cereal prepared with water on one occasion and cereal
made with carrot juice on another. After each feeding session, the scientists also asked the mothers to rate their babies’
enjoyment of the cereal.
When fed the carrot-flavored cereal, infants whose mothers had drunk the carrot juice while pregnant or breastfeeding
displayed fewer negative facial expressions—the infant equivalent of “What’s that weird stuff?”—than the babies whose mothers
had sipped water. These infants also appeared (according to their mothers, who were unaware of the scientists’ research
question) to enjoy the carrot-flavored cereal more than the one made with water. “Prior exposure to the carrot juice made the
taste familiar, and therefore more acceptable,” says Mennella.
We try to sit down to a family dinner every night, but our schedules are so crazy it rarely happens. How can I get the whole
There’s no denying that sticking to a regular family dinner schedule is tough, with parents balancing work schedules with
their children’s after-school activities—but it’s worth the effort, says William Doherty, Ph.D., director of the Marriage and
Family Therapy Program at the University of Minnesota. When Doherty’s colleagues at the university’s Center for Adolescent
Health and Development surveyed 4,746 middle school and high school students for Project EAT (Eating Among Teens), they found
that the kids who sat down to meals most often with their families—seven or more times weekly—tended to have higher
grade-point averages and were more well-adjusted in general than those who ate the fewest family meals (two or fewer per
week). They were less likely to feel depressed or suicidal, to smoke cigarettes or use alcohol or marijuana. Other studies
have found that children who eat regular meals with their families also eat more healthfully in general, taking in more
fruits and vegetables and calcium-rich foods, fewer soft drinks and snack foods. They may also have a lower risk of
disordered eating, with fewer reports of extreme weight-loss diets or binge eating in kids whose families placed a high
priority on regular family meals.
Why? Family meals give parents an opportunity to model good eating habits—and to show kids what a “normal” meal might look
like (unlike the French fries/hot dog/soft drink combo they might otherwise choose). And parents are better able to spot
potential eating problems if they’re facing them right across the table. Mealtimes are also critical for connecting, says
Doherty. “It’s one of the few opportunities families have to be together as a group, sharing in conversation,” he says.
Here are a few tips to help get you in the family dinner habit:
- Keep trying. If you’re not used to regular dinners, expect some initial awkwardness. “Like exercise, the benefits will
accrue only if you stick with it,” says Doherty.
- Get help. Kids can help plan, cook, serve and clean up after meals; they’ll be more game to participate if they have a
stake in the meal.
- Speak out. If soccer practice or a PTA meeting is scheduled during dinner time, ask if it can be changed. “We need to be
home for dinner” is a perfectly acceptable excuse.
- No time to cook family dinner? Try breakfast or lunch, use take-out or go to a restaurant. What’s being served isn’t as
important as the fact that you’re together.
- Keep conflicts off the table. Focus more on conversation than on table manners or whether your child finishes her peas.
How do I help my overweight child lose weight healthfully?
The best way to help a child move toward a normal weight if he or she is overweight is for the whole family to adopt a
healthy lifestyle, says pediatrician Mary Ellen Renna, M.D., author of Growing Up Healthy the Next Generation Way: Add Years
to Your Child's Life & Life to Your Child's Years (SelectBooks, 2007). Everyone should eat lots of fruits and vegetables and
exercise regularly, she says. “Never target one child to lose weight while the other children are eating junk.”
My kids are always asking me for things they see on TV or that they see their friends eating. How can I deal with this?
It’s important to keep a positive spin on food issues, says Mary Ellen Renna, M.D., author of Growing Up Healthy the Next
Generation Way: Add Years to Your Child’s Life & Life to Your Child’s Years (SelectBooks, 2007). “You should avoid statements
like ‘You can't have that.’ A better approach is to teach your children why we need to eat healthy.” Explain to them why we
need vitamins and minerals to stay healthy and how poor eating won’t give them the nutrition they need to do well in school
or play sports, she says. When children complain that other kids get to eat junk food, remind them of how proud you are of
their healthy eating, says Renna. “Suggest to your child that he/she could help their friend learn to eat better by trying
some of the healthy food they eat! This empowers your child and makes them feel good about what they are doing.”
How can I get my kid to love (or just like) healthy foods?
The best way to teach your child that healthy foods are important is to eat them yourself. In other words, show him, don’t
just tell him. In a study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, researchers showed that parents who
ate lots of fruit and vegetables generally had daughters who consumed plenty of produce, too, whereas parents who pushed
fruits and vegetables but ate few servings themselves tended to have daughters who had low intakes of fruit and vegetables.
In addition to preferring foods that are familiar, children also learn to prefer foods that are presented as acceptable in
their homes. During early childhood one begins to associate both positive and negative experiences with particular foods.
Offering a child a certain food as part of a fun celebration or ritual (e.g., birthday cake) enhances his preferences for
that food. On the other hand, insisting that a child eat something in order to get a reward—“Finish your peas and then you
can watch television”—usually creates a negative food association. Although possibly effective in the short term, over the
long haul this will backfire because bribing your child to eat something tends to reinforce the negative association with