Parents play a key role in shaping young eating habits and attitudes about food, nutritionists say. But, too often, they're sending mixed signals.
There's the mom who demands that her kids eat breakfast, then skips the meal herself. There's the dad who bans chips and candy, elevating the forbidden food to tempting levels.
And there are parents everywhere resorting to rules and offhand dinner comments that turn food into rewards and punishments.
How's a kid supposed to enjoy good food -- and feel good about eating it?
What parents need to realize, food experts say, is that what they say and do is just as important as what they put on their kid's plate.
‘‘Raising kids with healthy attitudes towards food will ultimately lead to older kids and adults that choose to eat in a healthy way," says Robin Miller, a nutritionist who hosts the Food Network show Quick Fix Meals with Robin Miller.
The mother of two boys -- Kyle, 7, and Luke, 5 -- Miller will be in town Saturday, when she'll be dishing out healthy dining tips at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival.
Miller is known for recipes that help super-busy moms, but what isn't so widely known is that she got into this business because her older sister, Stacy, died at age 21 after battling the eating disorder anorexia nervosa. Miller, who was 17 at the time, said the experience convinced her to study nutrition. Years later, she's hyper alert to developing healthy food attitudes in her own children.
Symptoms for anorexia and bulimia can occur as young as kindergarten, according to the National Eating Disorders Association, which estimates nearly 10 million women and one million men in the United States suffer from eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia.
The peak onset for the disorders is during puberty and the late teen-early adult years.
About 40 percent of newly identified cases of anorexia are in girls, ages 15 to 19.
Those are the extreme cases. Nutritionists warn that many more suffer from obsessions with body image and dieting that start at an absurdly young age. In one 2001 study of 234 Girl Scouts, about 30 percent of the 10-year-old girls told researchers at the University of Minnesota they were trying to lose weight.
Ivonne Hamilton, a registered dietician and nutritionist who is an eating disorders specialist, says she has counseled clients as young as 8 in her office at The Counseling Group in Miami. As the mother of two young daughters -- Cristine, 13, and Juliette, 10 -- Hamilton says she's constantly rebutting diet claims and body messages they see on TV.
"If there's a diet commercial that ends with a woman saying how she's lost 10 pounds and now has a new car, a new boyfriend and life is great, I give my girls some healthy sarcasm: ‘Oh yeah, her life is so much better because she lost 10 pounds,' '' Hamilton says.
Hamilton subscribes to an 80-20 relationship with food. If 80 percent of the time we do the healthy thing, then it's OK to grab a doughnut or indulge yourself 20 percent of the time.
For her two boys, Miller makes a point of putting out a mix of food -- cheese, fruit, nuts and doughnuts -- on one plate to emphasize there are no "good'' or ‘‘bad'' foods; they can all be enjoyed in moderation.
TIPS FROM THE EXPERTS
Nutritionists Robin Miller and Ivonne Hamilton offer tips for common food issues with kids.• Problem: My child won't eat breakfast.
Hamilton: Not an option. Your body gets used to it and it's very damaging to metabolism, brain energy and focus. Sit with them and eat breakfast with them.
Miller: Who says you have to serve breakfast food? Give him a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich, grilled cheese or nuts with cheese.
•Problem: My child comes home with a lunchbox full of uneaten food.
Hamilton: Take your child to the grocery store and negotiate. Or do the grocery list with your child. You need to come up with options.
• Problem: My child will eat only one thing.
Miller: Parents should relax and ride it out as best they can. What often works is partnering that favorite food with something new. If the child's favorite food is chicken nuggets, try serving a pureed vegetable dip on the side. If it's macaroni-and-cheese, try adding diced carrots or peas to the dish or serve carrots with Ranch dressing on the side.
• Problem: Should I put a dessert in my kid's lunch?
Hamilton: It's OK. Most people want something a little sweet and that's not a bad thing. If you ignore it, it develops into a craving. It doesn't have to be huge: a few cookies, one of those sweet drink yogurts.
• Problem: My 2-year-old is suddenly refusing to eat anything healthy.
Hamilton: Serve the food together -- not mushed, but all at once on one plate. Keep exposing your child to it, eventually they're going to come around. As they get older, don't saying things like, ‘You can't have this cookie until you finish your rice.' That puts attention on the cookie and gives it power.