By Angela Hynes

Faced several times a day with your toddler’s very age-typical reflexive answer to all food (“No!”), you may not have had much cause to consider the statistics on overweight school children yet. Who has time to think that far ahead when you’re just trying to get him to eat something—anything—healthful? For the record, according to the Centers for Disease Control, overweight and obesity rates in children ages 6 to 19 have tripled since 1980.

The problem can start even younger, and “if they’re already overweight as toddlers, their chances of becoming overweight as adults are much higher,” says Jennifer Shu, M.D., coauthor with Laura A. Jana, M.D., of Food Fights: Winning the Nutritional Challenges of Parenthood Armed with Insight, Humor and a Bottle of Ketchup (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2007), and a medical expert for cnnhealth.com.

As moms, both women take a reality-based approach to food-related challenges, but one that is backed up by their credentials as pediatricians. Here are some of the strategies they recommend for taking advantage of this perfect time to set up your toddler for a lifetime of healthy eating and good attitudes toward food.

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Take it one bite at a time
Your child may need 10 to 15 exposures to a food before accepting it. (Think about it: You likely didn’t take to new adult flavors such as coffee or alcohol right away.) So how do you get them to try the cauliflower or blueberries the other 9 to 14 times? First, don’t give the game away. “Kids can sense if you’re feeding them something you think they’re not going to like,” says Jana. That pretty much guarantees they won’t eat it.

Next, if you insist they have to clean their plates, they’re going to start exerting their independence and not eat any at all. This is where the “no, thank you” bite comes in. The child must eat one bite of each thing on the plate that he claims not to like, then has the option of saying, “no more, thank you.” It’s important to uphold your end of the deal and not urge him to try one more bite. “This technique develops at least a tolerance for the food,” Shu explains, “even though they might not necessarily like it initially.”

But often after several tries, they’ll decide it’s not so bad, and since they’re hungry, they’ll have two bites this time. Jana likes the method, too, because not only does it take the pressure off you, but it also gives the child a measure of control. She’s seen toddlers come around to liking everything from beets to hummus to cottage cheese this way.

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Never say never
Some foods have few redeeming features. Soda is a good case in point. While you’d rather your tot stick to milk or water, just a few sips of soda can get him hooked and asking for it. Plus, if he sees mom or older siblings swigging soda, “he’ll want to imitate that behavior,” says Shu. Loaded with sugar, caffeine and empty calories, soda has no nutritional value. Think of it as dessert, says Jana. “People give their child soda when they would never give them dessert.” Does that mean you should ban soda or other nutrition-poor foods entirely? No. “There’s very little that’s non-negotiable,” says Jana. “‘Never’ is too diffi cult to stick to.” She let her own children have soda as a treat when they ate in a restaurant because that was an infrequent occurrence.

If a busy lifestyle dictates that you eat out several days a week, then you might determine that they can have soda (or chips, candy or ice cream) on only one of those days. An elementary school-age child is capable of deciding when they have a treat, and of keeping track, says Jana. The bonus: When kids understand the trade-off—if they get it now, they don’t get it later—they’ve learned valuable real-world skills as opposed to being in a protected food environment.

Gotta love those granny pantries
You’ve worked at establishing healthy habits, and then your tots go to visit grandma, who stuffs them with chocolate before serving a macaroni and cheese dinner. Or they go to a play-date at a home with different food rules. It doesn’t mean all your work is undone.

“You want to be consistent, but you have to realize that not everyone is going to have the same guidelines,” Shu explains. While some children are very dependent upon routine when they’re young, and others are able to adapt to changes, “they usually can pick up that rules are different in one place compared to at home,” says Shu.

If your children know they’re going to get treats when they visit grandma and grandpa, as long as it’s not harmful or too frequent, let them have fun. “I’m a big believer that kids learn in context,” says Jana. “Make sure they understand that this is the exception to the rule; if you’ve been working on the basic principles all along, that is usually very clear. And making exceptions provides a healthy dose of reality.” However, if grandparents watch your children 40 hours a week and don’t follow fundamental rules that are important to you, you need to rethink your childcare plan.

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Get a new incentive plan
Food is often the default reward when you’re trying to establish behaviors in your toddler, but you don’t want to rely on it. “If possible, find a non-food reward,” says Shu. “We want children to eat for the sake of hunger, not for a reward or comfort.” Relating behavior with eating is not something that will serve them well in the long run. What else works? Toddlers love stickers, and “anything that has to do with learning is great: a book, pencils, crayons, art supplies,” says Shu. Those closer to 4 years old like to collect stars on a chart that go toward a bigger reward: five stars and she gets to pick a movie. And don’t forget hugs, kisses and words of praise.

Beware the marketing machine
“There are 18-month-olds who can’t read or spell their name, but they know the big ‘M’ they are driving by is McDonald’s,” says Jana. More telling, a recent study done at Stanford University School of Medicine in Palo Alto, Calif., found that preschoolers thought that identical foods tasted better when delivered in McDonald’s wrappings than in plain packages. “Even milk and carrots tasted better,” she says, “not just burgers and fries.”

You and your little one are up against a sophisticated food marketing industry that targets kids to make them lifelong consumers of their brands. And toddlers are an extremely susceptible market. With that in mind, Jana and Shu suggest following the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation of no more than two hours of media time for toddlers. Make TiVo your friend. That way, they can enjoy SpongeBob uninterrupted by commercials for brightly packaged, sugar-laden cereals and high-fat processed foods. Better yet, rent or buy DVDs. You’re in control of what your child watches, so define limits and stick to them.

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Get them hooked on books
To use marketing techniques to your child’s advantage, choose appropriate books—or movies or television shows, for that matter. “Sometimes having it come from a third party, such as a book, has a stronger influence than just hearing it from parents,” says Shu. Jana’s children asked for oatmeal because they wanted to have “boxcar breakfasts” after she read them the Boxcar Children book series when they were 3 and 4 years old. And they wanted to try ratatouille after seeing the animated movie of the same name. “I look for those opportunities all the time,” she says. Furthermore, “you pave a way to your child’s success when you read to them,” says Jana. It’s a bonding experience that instills a love of reading, improves language skills and promotes school success. When it’s an excellent book on eating aimed at kids, you have a win-win situation.

Remember, family matters
Statistics show that overweight parents tend to raise overweight children. So bringing up healthy eaters requires providing good role models. “‘Do as I say and not as I do’ doesn’t usually fl y in parenting,” says Jana. Knowing that there are long-term implications to your child’s health might be just the incentive you need to make changes in the way your whole family approaches food. Talk to your own doctor as well as your pediatrician for guidelines.

Angela Hynes is a Los Angeles-based writer/editor who says she’s the type of aunt to watch out for: She feeds her nieces and nephews candy behind their parents’ backs.

Give your todlder a lifetime of healthy eating habits with these expert tips.

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