Bribing kids to eat their broccoli, banning sweets and offering too much 100 percent fruit juice can backfire on even the most well-meaning parents. Here are 8 feeding mistakes parents too-often make:
Mistake 1: Telling kids to clean their plate
For the most part, healthy young children eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full. As a parent, you don't want to mess around with their internal cues by encouraging or bribing them to "clean their plates" and eat past the point of fullness.
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Instead, provide small-moderate portions at meals and encourage your kids to eat until they are comfortably full. Teaching your kids to be "in tune" with their own hunger and fullness cues will allow them to have a comfortable relationship with food and avoid overeating as they grow older.
Mistake 2: Offering sweet rewards
Trying to get children to eat their vegetables can be downright frustrating - and parents often resort to bribery. Does this sound familiar? "Eat your broccoli and you can have ice cream for dessert."
But unfortunately, this technique teaches our kids that broccoli and other vegetables are "less appealing" because their consumption requires a reward. At the same time, this approach positions dessert as the prize, something to be valued over other foods.
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Plus, multiple studies have shown that, in the long run, preference for foods decreases when kids are given rewards for eating them. Bottom line: Keep dessert a separate entity versus the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Mistake 3: Serving up too many snacks
Constant snacking throughout the day translates to calorie overload - plus, can leave kids uninterested in nutritious food (like chicken and vegetables) at mealtime when lunch or dinner rolls around.
Try to stick to a consistent meal and snack schedule. Allow at least 2 hours between snacks and meals. No more than 2-3 snacks a day, and limit them to about 150 calories apiece.
Mistake 4: Filling up on empty liquid calories
An eye-opening study in the journal Pediatrics found that today's youths take in 10 to 15 percent of their total daily calories from sugar-sweetened beverages (like soda, sports drinks, and fruit drinks) and 100 percent fruit juice. Further, kids' average daily caloric intake from these beverages increased from 242 calories to 270 calories over the last 10 years and continues to rise. Most of these drinks are sources of empty calories, meaning they provide simple sugars but little else in the way of nutrients - plus, high-calorie beverages do not trigger the same satiety mechanisms as solid foods. This means that your kids are unlikely to feel full from drinking lots of soda or juice, and therefore will not innately compensate for the extra liquid calories they slurp up, which can inevitably pack on the pounds.
Your best bet is to limit the beverage choices offered in your home to water (including seltzer and sparkling water), low-fat milk (after age 2), and diluted 100 percent fruit juice on occasion. Don't introduce young kids to sugary waters, juice drinks, or soda at a young age. Set a good example, and don't drink them yourself!
Mistake 5: Giving in to kids' dinner demands
When it comes to mealtime, kids inevitably request pizza, chicken nuggets, pasta, burgers and fries. Instead of accommodating unhealthy requests, parents should take charge - nix sugary breakfast cereals and pastries in the am, and provide ONE universal meal for dinner each night (of course, try to take your kids taste preferences into account).
In fact, you can even learn to prepare healthier versions of your kids' favorite meals by making simple swaps in the kitchen: use lean meats (like ground turkey in place of fatty ground chuck), low-fat dairy (cheese, milk, yogurt) in place of full-fat varieties, and lighter condiments. If they love chicken nuggets and fries, prepare "baked" nuggets with "oven roasted" potato fries and a green vegetable. If they like burgers, make lean turkey burgers. If they crave pasta, try whole-wheat pasta with marinara and turkey meatballs.
And there's no need to rely on "kid foods" every night of the week. Continually try out new foods and recipes -- healthy renditions of beef stir-fry, chicken parmesean, even hoisin-glazed salmon -- and make it a policy for your kids to take at least one bite. If you encourage them to sample new foods regularly, as they grow older and their taste buds evolve, they'll be more likely to enjoy a healthy variety.
If they don't want to eat what's being served for dinner, I suggest offering one "back up" meal that doesn't require the stove or oven (this way you're not a short order cook) - perhaps a bowl of whole grain cereal with skim milk and bananas, or maybe a peanut butter & jelly sandwich. This strategy gives the child some power, parents some less-exhaustive options, and puts boring limitations on dinner so your kids are more likely to venture out and try new things on the table.
Mistake 6: Letting kids overdose on screen time
According to a 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation report, in a typical day, 8 to 18-year-olds in this country spend more than 7½ hours using media (TV, music, computer video games, etc.). That's almost a full work-day of media time each and every day! When kids are parked in front of the tube, they're totally sedentary and eating up time that might otherwise be spent playing or moving around. Plus, there's a good chance they're mindlessly snacking on junk food while watching their shows - and also being bombarded by unhealthy food ads. SO it's actually a TRIPLE whammy of unhealthy habits.
Set house rules on television time, and limit your kids to their favorite shows. Only have the TV on at set times when people are watching a designated program - don't keep it on as background noise all day long. And definitely don't allow the TV to be on during mealtimes -when it can distract them and interfere with them listening to their body's natural fullness cues.
It's also a good idea to keep TVs and video game systems out of their bedrooms and store their electronics (cell phones, video games, iPads, laptops, etc.) in a public space at the end of the day so they're not staying up late to use them at night.
Mistake 7: Letting kids stay up late
Sleep deprivation messes with appetite cues. It increases levels of hormones that make kids hungrier and decreases levels of hormones that keep kids feeling fulll, so tired kids are more likely to want snacks and nibble and graze throughout the day. Plus, if your kids aren't well rested, you'll have more issues getting them up in the morning in time to eat a healthy breakfast (and skipping breakfast makes them far hungrier in the afternoon/evening hours).
What to do: Set a firm bedtime, have a routine in place and get your kids ready for bed at the same time each night.
Mistake 8: Using strollers excessively
Strollers are a wonderful necessity, but using them excessively as your kids get older robs them of exercise - and reinforces the idea that it's okay to be sedentary. Whenever possible, encourage toddlers and young kids to walk on their own instead of being pushed in the stroller (when your out for a walk, try 10 minutes in the stroller and 10 minutes out). And make sure you're phasing out the stroller as your kids get older - lots of parents wheel kids around after 3, when they are certainly capable of walking.