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How To Make Sure Your Preschooler Eats Healthy

French fries as a vegetable? Sure, they're made from potatoes, but that doesn't make them good for you. But according to a new study, fries are the vegetable most often fed to toddlers older than 15 months. In fact, almost a quarter of toddlers eat them at least once a day.

"Raising a toddler is stressful, and many parents tend to make their lives easier by finding a food their child will eat and sticking with it," says Frances Berg, noted childhood obesity expert and author of Underage and Overweight: America's Childhood Obesity Epidemic (Hatherleigh Press, 2004). "The problem is that a young child who is repeatedly given unhealthy foods and not exposed to as many healthy ones will be less likely to make healthy eating choices as he or she gets older."

The Feeding of Infants and Toddlers Study (FITS), which studied the eating habits of 3,000 children aged 4 months to 2 years, has called attention to the lack of fruits and vegetables fed to young children. Even with fries counted as a vegetable, half of toddlers aged 1 to 2 years ate no vegetables at lunch, and one-third had no vegetables at dinner.

Want to make sure your children are eating right? Berg gives these tips for stress-free healthy feeding:

Snack Time Is as Important as Mealtime

Because toddlers have small stomachs that limit the amount they can eat at mealtimes, they get much of their nutrition from snacks. Unfortunately, the snacks they're eating aren't always that nutritious: Cookies, chips and crackers top the list. Instead, serve healthy – and tasty – snacks like fruit and cheese.

Add Foods, Don't Take Away

Don't suddenly decide you're going to cut everything unhealthy out of your family's diet. Instead, introduce more healthy foods and phase out unhealthy ones. That way, your child is less likely to feel deprived and more likely to react positively to the change.

Variety Is the Spice of Life

Toddlers can be picky eaters, but the earlier you expose children to a variety of foods, the more likely they will be to eat a varied diet as they get older. Don't force your child to eat any particular food. Instead, offer your child a variety of healthy foods at mealtime and let him or her decide which to eat.

Set a Good Example

Be enthusiastic about eating a variety of healthy foods. Everyone knows that nutrition is important for young children, but many parents are so stressed that they forget to eat well themselves. Eat vegetables and drink milk with your dinner instead of soda and your children will be more likely to follow your lead. An added bonus: Eating better will give you the energy you need to keep up with your kids!

If at First You Don't Succeed...

If your child won't eat certain foods, try again! Studies have shown that a new food often has to be served eight to 15 times before a child will accept it. But according to FITS, only 6 to 9 percent of parents offer a new food even six times. Relying on the same few foods you know your child will eat may seem easier, but it makes it less likely that your child will have a balanced diet.

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CeReality: 5 Families, 5 Stories, 1 Critical Meal

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