As a registered dietitian, there's a question I am routinely asked: "How can I encourage my child to eat healthy foods?"
If you're the parent of a picky eater, no doubt you can relate to the daily challenge of finding foods your child will eat. When faced with a child who shows no interest in vegetables - or in the family dinner, for that matter - even the most determined parents can be swayed into the role of a short-order cook.
A meal of chicken nuggets, macaroni or breakfast cereal may avert a food battle at dinner, but it can also leave your child in a nutritional deficit if it's routine fare.
The key, according to a study published this month in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, is eating regular family meals.
The study found that teens who participated in regular family meals - five or more together each week - reported more healthful diets and meal patterns compared with peers who ate few family meals.
Researchers from the University of Minnesota surveyed 677 boys and girls, aged 12 and 13, about their diet and did so again five years later. Kids who reported eating as a family on a regular basis throughout the study period were more likely to eat breakfast and had a higher intake of vegetables, fibre, calcium, magnesium, potassium and iron at age 17 and 18.
With home-cooked meals, kids tend to eat more fruits and vegetables and fewer unhealthy foods. Family meals also help facilitate discussions about healthy food choices at and away from home.
But it's not just about nutrition. Studies also show that the more often families eat together, the less likely kids are to smoke, drink, take drugs and develop eating disorders, and the more likely they are to excel academically.
Parents' work schedules and kids' extracurricular activities can make it challenging to find time for everyone to sit down together for the evening meal, especially five times a week. If your schedule gets in the way, eating breakfast together or lunch on the weekends can also encourage healthy eating habits in children.
According to childhood nutrition experts, there are other strategies that can help kids adopt a healthful and varied diet.
COOK ONE MEAL FOR ALL
To help children get used to sharing a family meal - and trying new foods - avoid becoming a short-order cook. Allowing a child to eat a few select foods makes it harder for them to accept new ones later on.
A recent Pennsylvania State University study of more than 2,000 parents revealed that children with healthier diets and body weights had parents who rarely allowed them too many food choices or made them alternatives to the family meal.
Even if your child refuses to eat what's served, the truth is he won't starve. You may have to live with a short-term protest, but chances are he'll arrive at the table hungry for the next meal.
Continue to offer your child a variety of healthy foods. Don't give up too soon; research has shown that it may take as many as 10 attempts before a child accepts a new food.
WATCH THE CLOCK
To ensure your child arrives at the table hungry and motivated to eat, withhold juice and snacks one hour before meal time.
Allow no more than two or three snacks a day. Constant snacking can leave kids uninterested in food when meal time rolls around.
AVOID BRIBES AND REWARDS
Trying to get kids to eat their greens can be incredibly frustrating. But bribing them by promising cookies for dessert won't help. Offering food bribes usually backfires in the long run as it teaches kids to dislike vegetables because eating them deserves a reward. And it can train children to eat when they're not truly hungry.
If you've already fallen prey to the food as reward mentality, try to remove the connection between the meal and dessert. Have your child eat his meal until he says he's full. Plan to serve dessert an hour after mealtime. If truly full, your child may even forget about the sweets.
CLEAR THE CANDY DRAWER
Stocking up on sweets and junk food increases the temptation to desire these foods. If they aren't in the house on a regular basis, kids will be more likely to snack on healthy foods.
It's not necessary that junk food be banned from the house. This only makes it more tempting. Instead, reserve these foods for weekly treats and special occasions.
GET KIDS INVOLVED
From an early age, encourage kids to help with meal planning and preparation, grocery shopping and setting the table. Research suggests that doing so can help overcome fussy eating habits.
In a study from Columbia University in New York, 600 children from kindergarten to Grade 6 participated in nutrition lessons that included, for some, cooking workshops. Kids who prepared their own healthy foods were more likely to eat those foods in the cafeteria and ask for seconds than kids who did not have the cooking class.
Allowing children to play a role in meal preparation helps them become more accepting of new food textures and colours.
LEAD BY EXAMPLE
Adults who eat a variety of healthy foods are far more likely to have kids who do the same. Practising what you preach goes beyond eating your fruit and vegetables. It also means avoiding restrictive diets and not complaining about your own weight, or anyone else's, in front of your kids.
Children who observe their parents dieting may view this as normal behaviour and be more likely to diet themselves.
Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based dietitian at the Medcan Clinic, is on CTV's Canada AM every Wednesday. Her website is lesliebeck.com