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Healthy food choices for busy families

This is an excerpt from Eating on the Run, Third Edition, by Evelyn Tribole

If Mom and Dad are on the run, who’s feeding the kids? Let’s not forget that children have busy schedules, too--be it dance lessons, soccer practice, or weekend baseball tournaments--which means that the whole family is often on the run. The kids may be coming home to an empty house and preparing their own snacks or meals. Even when parents are home, children can be subject to the same eating challenges as adults face, from frozen meals to fast foods. In addition, kids face hurdles created by a food industry aimed just at children, which also makes it hard on parents!


Unlike adults, kids are wooed by the food industry with toys and trinkets. Happy Meal sales accounted for 20 percent of U.S. purchases at McDonald’s, adding up to a whopping $3.5 billion in annual revenue.

For years the kid food wars were primarily the domain of the cereal aisles. But the specialty kid market has grown--from edible cartoon characters to baseball cards buried in the food. Look at what the specialty kid food industry has to offer:

  • Flintstones vitamins
  • Dino Buddies frozen chicken nuggets
  • Scooby-Doo cereal
  • McDonald’s Happy Meals
  • Hot Wheels fruit snacks

Get the picture? The trend is for best-selling toys, cartoons, or movies to become food, of sorts. Too often this leads to a lot of razzle without the important nutritional dazzle. That’s unfortunate because the growing years are a critical time for developing healthful eating habits. And statistics show some rather shocking facts about our children’s health. For instance, in the United States, childhood obesity doubled over the past decade, and 15 percent of six- to nine-year-olds are overweight. More kids than ever are developing type 2 diabetes, a condition that usually occurs in adulthood.

In this chapter we will delve into how parents can help their children eat healthier, even when eating fast food, frozen food, or other convenience foods. We’ll also look at snacking and children’s vitamins. First, we’ll go over guidelines to help your child develop healthy eating habits regardless of where he or she eats.


All too often I have counseled well-meaning parents who want their kids to eat healthfully but who do this by imposing rigid eating rules that end up having undesirable effects. Strict eating rules can backfire by causing kids to

  • be out of touch with their own inner cues of hunger,
  • eat snacks when they are not hungry,
  • overeat when mom or dad is not looking,
  • sneak food,
  • eat more of the very food that is restricted, or
  • become overweight.

A 1996 study from child feeding expert Leann L. Birch underscores this problem. The study demonstrated that a parent’s use of restrictive feeding practices not only promotes eating in the absence of hunger, it actually triggers the consumption of the particular restricted food! Many other compelling studies have demonstrated this paradox.

It’s important to allow your child to listen to internal hunger and fullness cues. This also means not telling your child to clean his or her plate. Children need to learn to become the experts on their own bodies’ biological cues. Otherwise, your child’s development of self-regulating eating cues is undermined, which in turn makes him or her more vulnerable to eating when not hungry and eating larger amounts of food. Instead, your child’s desire to eat easily becomes triggered by the food environment. This includes the mere presence of food, size of the portion, and social context, not to mention the ever-present food marketing tactics that make food captivating.

One study demonstrated how one environmental factor, portion size, can influence kids. When four- to size-year-olds were served a double portion of food, their intake increased by 60 percent. Yet, two- to three-year-old children who were served small or large portions of food ate the same amount, regardless of portion size. Children at this age have not yet been as tainted by environmental triggers to eat, including parents’ food rules. Given ever-growing food portions, it’s even more important to encourage your child’s sense of internal eating cues.

What about the picky eater? Don’t be overly concerned about food jags; they are normal in children. Keep in mind that younger kids are especially reluctant to try new foods; this behavior, called neophobia, is natural. It takes an average 8 or 10 time of tasting (not just seeing) a food before a child will accept it. Children are capable of learning to accept and like a wide variety of foods. It just takes gentle, repeated exposure to a variety of foods.

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