by Pia K. Hansen
Food fads and trends come and go just like fashion. One year, carbohydrates are bad. Then it's protein. Next it's meat, or butter, or margarine. And when it comes to what you put on your children's plates, there are even more myths and fads to go around.

Whole milk makes children allergic to a host of things, say some parents. Children should be on low-fat diets right from the start, or they turn into obese adults, say others. Children should be made to clean their plates; children should never be made to clean their plates. Always buy organic foods for your children; the virtues of organic food are overrated.

Help! How did something as simple as eating get this complicated?

When it comes to nutritional guidance, the United States Department of Agriculture sticks with the tried-and-true Food Pyramid. Start out with plenty of grains, rice, pasta, vegetables and fruits, then add two or three servings of dairy products and two or three servings of meat. Always go easy on sugars and fats -- no more than 30 percent of your daily calorie intake should come from fat -- and, if you're older than two, you'll be set to go. If you're younger, however, your needs are a bit different.

"I would say that kids under five should have some fat in their diets from dairy products and cheese, for instance," says Craig T. Hunt, a registered dietitian in Spokane. "Don't put kids on a low-fat diet just because the parents are on one. And parents should remember that children imitate them, so if they are on a diet with no carbohydrates and there's no bread or pasta on the table, then the kids will stop eating carbs as well."

Good nutrition is about balance, and if children are offered a choice of healthy foods, they will often pick a variety.

"At every meal, and especially at breakfast and lunch, it's important to offer a variety of food sources -- carbohydrates, vegetables, fats and protein," says Hunt.

Breast is Best -- But children aren't ready for solids until they are between four and six months old. As far as newborns and nutrition go, moreover, there is one thing nutritionists agree on: Breast milk is best.

"It is best. Here, in the United States, babies can grow up healthy on formula, but there are more than 100 different compounds in breast milk that we can't duplicate in formula, and an estimated 100 million antibodies that breast-feeding babies get that way every day," says Michelle Hagan, a registered dietitian with the Women Infants and Children's (WIC) program at Spokane Regional Health District. She encourages women who can to breast-feed for at least the first year.

"Yes, you can breast-feed in public," she adds. "After that year, when you stop should be a parent decision."

If you're eating one day and your baby begins to look interested, smacking his lips and making chewing motions, it's a sure sign that he's ready to try solid foods.

"Start out with rice cereal. It's the least likely to cause any allergy," says Hagan. Don't worry too much about the nutritional value: "Solids add some nutrients, but this early it's more about learning how to eat than anything else. Breast milk or formula continues to cover the child's main nutritional needs."

When the child is big enough to sit in a high chair and can reach, grab and move rattles and other toys to her mouth, she's ready for safe finger foods like Cheerios or banana slices cut in quarters. Mashed potatoes and well-cooked mashed vegetables that are already part of a regular family dinner can be introduced slowly as well.

Allergies? -- Many children develop allergies or intolerance toward certain foods. There are many theories as to why more children seem to be allergic today than, say, two decades ago, but one fact remains: A severe allergic reaction to any food can be life-threatening. Yet just because your child seems fussy after a feeding doesn't necessarily mean you are witnessing an allergic reaction.

"Parents should not self-diagnose these things," says Hagan. "It is very important to see an allergist, to get tested and determine what exactly is going on, and to make sure the child isn't allergic to any other things than what you as a parent suspect."

She adds that allergy testing can be less accurate before the child turns two; if a food allergy is suspected, the family might simply eliminate certain foods until the child is old enough to be tested.

"Always talk to a health care provider, your doctor or an allergist," says Hagan. "Kids do so much better when you finally figure out what you are allergic to."

Sweets -- The main reason parents should limit sugar in older children's food is tooth decay and obesity. The USDA maintains that sugar does not cause behavioral problems in children -- but many parents beg to differ.

"Sugar is connected to tooth decay and obesity. It's empty calories and it causes weight gain," says Hagan. "Watch out for sugared beverages, even 100 percent juices. They should be limited to six to eight ounces a day. Emphasize more water."

And think about what else is in the food you serve -- 34 grams of sugar in a strawberry yogurt is a better choice than 34 grams of sugar in a chocolate bar.

"The sugar in the yogurt comes with protein and calcium as well. That makes it a better choice," says Hunt.

Also, when it comes to how much food you feed your children, always remember that a child's serving is smaller than an adult's.

"For a one-year-old, one serving is a quarter-cup or two tablespoons," says Hagan. "We tend to judge by our serving sizes and give children too much food."

Picky Eaters -- We've all met them -- you know, the kids who only want to eat brown things, or apples when they are cut that way, or cereal out of the red bowl, d not the blue one. Picky eaters terrorize many a dinner table, leading to frayed parental nerves and in-fights between siblings who get special treatment. So when is there cause for real worry?

"I would say don't worry too much because Jimmy only wants to eat green things if the child's development and growth is normal," says Hagan. "It's the parent's job to offer a choice of healthy foods, but the child decides what and how much to eat."

Yes, that's right -- don't force your child to clean his or her plate.

"If they're full, they are full," says Hagan. "But we all know that kids like to push the envelope. It can be hard. I always tell parents who battle with their children over food, there is one thing they can be sure of -- and that is that the child will win every time."

She says especially children between one and three years old struggle to gain control over what they eat.

"It's about power. They don't have a lot of control over anything at that age -- not over their body, not over where they go and when, not over most things in their daily life," says Hagan. "That's why it is so important that parents provide a variety of healthy foods at mealtime -- then you don't have to battle, and the child has a sense of control because they can choose between several things."

Hunt says he believes that some eating disorders get started when toddlers are forced into eating things they don't like.

"I really think that those negative memories stick with the kids until they become teens, and that's when we begin to see the real eating problems," says Hunt. "Some parents say their children should just have one bite of a food to try it, even if they don't like it, and that seems to work. Parents also need to stretch themselves a little so they don't get stuck in a rut with the same 20 foods. I have had teens in here who never tried avocado or brussel sprouts, for instance -- if parents don't like it, they don't serve it."

Publication date: 04/17/03

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