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Your Child's Nutrition: The Power of Parents

You have more influence on what your kids eat than you think. Here's how to make the most of it.
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Mom has plenty on her plate these days, including the high-ranking job as senior manager of her children's nutrition.

In most families, "mom buys the food that's in the house. Mom puts food on the table. Mom has the pivotal role in what the kids eat," says Marilyn Tanner-Blasier, RD, LD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

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Dads influence their child's nutrition, too, and it's not just what's cooking in the kitchen. Both parents set the pattern for the family's lifestyle. If mom and dad are oatmeal-and-biking types, their kids likely are, too. If parents are more the chips-and-TV type, that's where you'll find the kids.

Your Child's Nutrition: You're the Role Model

In one large survey of kids under age 12, mom and dad ranked highest as their children's nutrition role models -- the persons the kids most wanted to be like, reports Tanner-Blasier. Nearly 70% of children reported they were likely to talk with mom or dad about nutrition and their body size.

That survey -- conducted by the American Dietetic Association Foundation -- also picked up on the families' activity levels. Kids were more likely to eat a meal or watch TV with a parent, rather than playing outside.

"If mom and dad spent most of their time sitting around watching TV, leading an inactive lifestyle, kids did the same," says Tanner-Blasier, who is also a pediatric dietitian at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

Trouble is, "many parents don't really think of themselves as role models," says Ron Kleinman, MD, associate chief of pediatrics at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

"Parents expect their kids to do things, like exercise, that they themselves don't do," he tells WebMD. "You can't lie on the couch watching TV, snacking on potato chips -- yet tell your child to go outside and get some exercise. It just doesn't work that way."

How to Model Good Nutrition for Your Child

Any parent can be a good role model for children's nutrition. "Even if you're overweight and having trouble losing it, it's still possible to role model a healthy lifestyle for your child," Kleinman tells WebMD. Try these tips at home:

  • Buy fruits and vegetables rather than snacks. "Studies show that if parents emphasize how important these are in the diet, children will eat them more often -- compared to parents who are more about relaxed it," says Kleinman. "You don't want to be rigid about it, but you must insist."
  • Pass along the basics of portion control. Kids also must learn to stop eating -- what nutritionists call portion control. "In our culture, we tend to lose sight of the feeling of fullness," Kleinman explains. "The 'clean your plate' club overrides the natural cues a child has to stop eating when they are full. It prompts them to eat when there is no reason to eat."

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