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Published May 06, 2012, 11:30 PM

InDepth | How to help children become normalized eaters

FARGO – Clean your plate. No dinner until you do your homework. We’ll go to McDonald’s if you sit still.

By: Meredith Holt, INFORUM

FARGO – Clean your plate. No dinner until you do your homework. We’ll go to McDonald’s if you sit still.

Parents pass on their views about food and weight and can inadvertently create negative associations with food.

“There are so many ways to go wrong,” says Nadine Hillesheim, psychologist and counselor with The Village Family Service Center in Fargo.

Teaching your children good eating habits while maintaining a positive message can be tricky.

Here are some tips for setting a foundation for a lifetime of normalized eating:

Don’t push or restrict.

Babies know what they want. “They’re so in tune with what they need and what they don’t need,” says Kim Vance, program director for Fargo Cass Public Health WIC.

She says parents sometimes miss those natural cues as their infants move on to the next phase of feeding and eating.

Vance teaches the motto “Parents provide, kids decide.”

“Parents provide what to eat, when to eat and where to eat,” she says. “Kids are responsible for how much they eat.”

Don’t fret if your child eats what seems like a lot one day and what seems like a little the next day.

“Their appetites are different,” Vance says. “They’re not going to eat the same every day.”

Provide structure and routine.

Schedule meals and snacks for children at home and have family meals when you can.

The way you eat within the home will influence how they eat outside the home.

Vance tells moms to “start as they intend to continue.”

If you give your children popsicles every day, they’ll expect popsicles every day.

Don’t use food as reward.

Don’t use food to reward, soothe or show love, or at least do so infrequently, Hillesheim says.

A pizza night for a straight-A report card is one thing; a cookie for a clean room is another.

Let them be involved.

Kim Bailey, nutrition manager with Clay-Wilkin Head Start, suggests letting your kids be involved in the grocery shopping, meal planning and food preparation.

Encourage them to try new foods by asking things like, “What color vegetables should we pick out this week?”

Watch your language.

Your child will pick up on the choice of words you use to describe food and talk about food.

Avoid using black-and-white language. “There are no good foods and bad foods,” Bailey says.

Hillesheim advises using “healthy/not healthy” or “nutritious/not nutritious” instead of “good/bad.”

Vance teaches WIC participants that “all foods fit” and categorizes foods as everyday foods, occasional foods and sometimes foods.

Hillesheim says any food is OK as long as it’s used in moderation.

If your child asks for Cheetos, offer an apple or string cheese first. If he’s still hungry, then he can have Cheetos.

Don’t make body shape and size an issue.

Familiarize yourself with growth charts so you know what to expect as your children grow and change, Hillesheim says.

Bailey says children are going to start wondering about “normal” body shape and size soon enough, so don’t make a big deal out of differences.

Be careful how you talk about your own body.

Don’t put yourself down for your appearance in front of your children.

Put a lid on the negative self-talk. “Everybody thinks they can hide it, but they really can’t,” Hillesheim says.

She says if you’re unhappy with your weight, don’t call yourself fat, ugly or disgusting. Instead, say you need to make an adjustment in your body size.

Encourage physical activity.

Get the whole family moving instead of focusing on the child.

Hillesheim suggests approaching it like, “Let’s all take a walk because it’s a beautiful day.”