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How to raise a healthy eater
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When we first become parents, we instantly are flooded with a host of new tasks. From the basics of changing diapers and regulating nap times to more long-term goals such as building a college fund, parents have a lot of responsibilities to their young ones. One responsibility that bridges the gap between basic and long-term, though, is feeding. How kids’ diets are managed when they are very young can have a huge impact on how they will choose to eat later in life. For this reason, it’s important to understand your child’s eating behaviors and his or her unique food personality.

Blount Memorial registered dietitian Angie Tillman says there typically are three different general types of eaters. “Adventurous eaters like to try new things, while cautious eaters tend to stick with what they know they like and are pickier or more reluctant to try new foods,” she said. “There also are the ‘in-between’ eaters who are picky sometimes and more eager other times. When it comes to developing healthy eaters, parents should first take time to discover which category their child falls into,” she explained.

Tillman says developing a healthy eater can be done in stages. “The new school of thought when it comes to first introducing solid foods to your baby is to do so whenever they are ready,” she said. “This generally is around the 5-7 month old range when babies begin to sit up, hold their heads up straight, or chew on their fingers or toys. This also is about the same time you will notice them opening their mouths when they want food and turning away when they don’t. Remember, infants are great food regulators. They will signal when they are full or when they want more,” she explained. “It’s important not to start too early, and be responsive to your baby’s needs,” she added.

Between the ages of six months and their first birthday, Tillman says most children will begin self-feeding. “At this age, what they will eat still depends entirely upon their parents’ choices. Brown rice, oatmeal, small portions of chicken and turkey, and soft fruits and vegetables are some common choices. By eight months, you can begin allowing soft finger foods, adding more fruits and vegetables, and practicing with utensils. Around the 10-month to one-year-old range, most children will be able to feed themselves well and should be joining in family meals,” she explained.

After they reach their first birthday, though, expect some pushback. “Between their first and third birthdays, children will begin to test their limits and show a marked increase in their food likes and dislikes,” Tillman said. “The goal here is to help them be positive about their eating habits, rely on their own internal and fullness cues, and introduce them to a variety of new foods to help them determine what they like and what they don’t like. At this stage, they also will learn to politely turn down foods they do not want to eat and make do with their ‘less-than-favorite’ foods,” she added. “Remember, toddlers are erratic. Instead of catering to them, offer foods that will help them eat well. Don’t get into struggles for control, and don’t force or bribe them. Just focus on planning balanced meals and snacks that taste good,” she explained.

From age 3 to 5, Tillman says it’s all about structure. “You want to help your preschooler get on a typical eating routine by having structured meals and snacks. Try to eat with them instead of simply feeding them, and begin introducing table manners,” she said. “At this stage, you also can begin involving them with tasks like cooking or gardening. Offer them sweets, but on a regular and predictable basis, remembering not to make sugary treats more than 10 percent of their overall diet,” she said.

“As kids develop into adolescence, the most important thing a parent can do is be a good role model,” Tillman says. “They will be looking to you to balance both snacks and family meals with nourishing foods, fun foods and foods that fall in between. During this time, it’s important to show moderation in both your nutritional attitudes and actions. Also, showing an appreciation for physical activity will help them accept it as part of daily living,” she explained.

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