DEAR DR. BLONZ: I would appreciate advice on improving the diet of my three young girls. I run up against refusals and "not hungrys," which later become pleas for their "regular." Special considerations given to one child are noted and questioned by the others. -- O.Q., Hayward, California
DEAR O.Q.: It is common for parents to be concerned when their children choose "junk foods" over healthier foods. The example set by the adult family members is key. Parents should refrain from the "do what I say" model and demonstrate healthful eating behaviors instead. Healthful eating benefits you, but also plants the seeds of these behaviors in your children, which can blossom later.
Consider what might be going through your child's mind as they sit down at the table and are told, "This is what you're eating." There are strategies that can help you lessen the surprise while stimulating your child's appreciation for nutritious food and feel more in command. The key areas are a consistent availability of healthful foods, menu planning, meal preparation and coping with unpredictable mealtime behavior. If there is more than one child, they can take turns being the primary "adviser" while agreeing to respect each other's choices.
When possible, take the kids grocery shopping -- but don't shop on empty stomachs, and make sure responsibilities have been established. Have them select their favorite fruits and vegetables, which can increase the chances they'll eat them at mealtime. At home, establish ways they can help with meal preparation -- being involved removes the mystery and can increase satisfaction with foods.
Associate healthful eating with your kids' physical development, including their skin and hair, appealing to the fact that they are making decisions about their bodies that will last their lifetime. Coercion or the promise of rewards can label a food as something not worth considering on its own merits.
Occasionally missing a meal or failing to eat from all the food groups are not signs of impending malnutrition. Avoid custom-cooking if the meal offered is rejected. Have some bread or fruit on the table for kids to pick at while they watch others enjoy the rest of the meal.
The senses of smell and taste can develop out of sync, taking mealtime behaviors with them. While there is no way to predict an individual's road to physical maturity, know that things change as they develop; food fixations and phobias are a fact of life that tend to go away with time.
Nobody knows your children and their habits better than you do. However, speaking with other parents to learn what their children enjoy can provide additional information on factors that influence eating choices.
There are resources available -- thenourishedchild.com has a blog and podcast. Consider a garden at home or in a community plot, and encourage your children's school to establish a student garden. Caring for plants and following food from seed to plate is an enriching, enlightening experience for young minds.
Send questions to: "On Nutrition," Ed Blonz, c/o Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO, 64106. Send email inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org. Due to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.