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Good Eats for School-Age Kids

How you feed your kid now can inspire healthy eating habits for a lifetime.
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How you feed your kid now can inspire healthy eating habits for a lifetime. New friends and activities change a school-age child's perspective on food. But it's still up to parents to provide kids with the foods they need to thrive.

Here's some expert advice on how you can do that, as well as set the stage for your child to learn healthy eating habits for life.

The Family Rules

Your child is probably spending more time than ever away from home, what with school, activities, and friends. Teachers, coaches, and peers may also influence a child's food preferences. Many lifelong food habits are established between the ages of 6 and 12, says Tara Ostrowe, MS, RD, a nutritionist and exercise physiologist in New York. During this time in particular, parents should try to display the same behaviors of healthy eating and regular exercise they would like their child to have for life.

Leading by example is so important at this age, says Theresa Nicklas, DrPH, professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. Rather than insisting your children finish their broccoli or drink their milk, show them you enjoy these foods. Be authoritative at the table, not authoritarian, Nicklas says.

Set the Table for Good Nutrition

Eating a variety of nutrient-rich foods -- such as whole grains, fat-free and low-fat dairy foods, lean protein, fruits, and vegetables -- at meals and snacks provides the calories and nutrients a school-age child needs to learn and play.

How will you know your child's getting enough of the right foods?  MyPlate, the latest edition of the government's food guidance system, can help. MyPlate reflects the recommendations in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA).

MyPlate's suggested servings are based on age, gender, and activity level. The examples below illustrate how school-age children's needs differ.

A 6-year-old girl who gets less than 30 minutes of exercise needs this every day:

  • 4 ounces from grains group
  • 1 1/2 cups from vegetable group
  • 1 cup from fruit group
  • 2 1/2 cups from dairy group
  • 3 ounces from protein foods group
  • 4 teaspoons oils

An 11-year-old active boy who gets 30 to 60 minutes of physical activity every day needs this on a daily basis:

  • 6 ounces from grains group
  • 2 1/2 cups from vegetable group
  • 2 cups from fruit group
  • 3 cups from dairy group
  • 5.5 ounces from protein foods group
  • 6 teaspoons oils

Foster a Healthy Weight

Serve healthy foods in the suggested amounts, and let your child take it from there. Monitoring every morsel out of concern for a child's weight could encourage an eating disorder such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia later on in life.

Allowing kids to eat when they are hungry and stop when full is the key to lifelong weight control. Using food to bribe, punish, or reward encourages a child to ignore hunger cues. Buy your children a book or small toy instead of an ice-cream cone when you want to show them you are pleased, says Ostrowe.

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