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Officials offer tips to help children develop healthy habits

Angel Cuevas, son of Army Spc. Ana Cuevas from the Institute of Surgical Research at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, enjoys an apple at the Wilford Hall Medical Center Feb. 25, 2010, at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. During National Nutrition Month, Airmen are encouraged to take time to assess their eating habits and how healthy eating habits are taught to children. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Nicole Roberts)

Angel Cuevas, son of Army Spc. Ana Cuevas from the Institute of Surgical Research at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, enjoys an apple at the Wilford Hall Medical Center Feb. 25, 2010, at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. During National Nutrition Month, Airmen are encouraged to take time to assess their eating habits and how healthy eating habits are taught to children. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Nicole Roberts)

LACKLAND AIR FORCE BASE, Texas (AFNS) -- March is National Nutrition Month and with that comes an increased focus on healthy eating.

Nutrition is an integral part of health in all individuals, especially in children, and Airmen and their families should take some time this month to assess your eating habits and how they may be affecting your children.

Children are very susceptible to their surroundings and often imitate those closest to them. It is important for parents to consume foods you wish your child to consume. If you set the standard, children will likely follow your example.

It is also important to keep positive associations with food and avoid using food as a reward, with the exception of celebrating special occasions such as a birthdays or family gatherings. Use positive associations to encourage children to eat fruits, vegetables, dairy and other healthy foods. Avoid using negative reinforcement when the child refuses to eat or try new foods.

It takes a child an average of eight to 10 times to accept a new food. If the child does not respond to a new item, keep offering it, but also have an alternative item to consume in the mean time. Meal time should be positive. Insisting that a child consume a certain item or clean his or her plate may result in a negative experience.

Healthy eating habits are key to long term success of healthy eating. Healthy eating habits can be instilled in a child at any age.

Here are some ways to developing healthy eating habits in children:
-- Start by cutting down on fat intake. Try using low-fat or non-fat dairy items, choose leaner meats such as loin or round cuts, skinless poultry, and decrease or eliminate use of high-fat condiment items such as butter, mayonnaise and salad dressing.
-- Avoid giving children "empty" calories. Empty calories are foods and beverages that do not provide substantial vitamins and nutrients with the calories. Sugar beverages such as soda and sweet, artificial fruit juices, as well as high sugar items such as candy bars or sugar cereals have a high caloric content without the nutritional benefit. Juice drinks tend to fill children up and make them less likely to eat meals later. It is important to limit these and consume in moderation.
-- Family meals are important. Having a set meal time has been shown to increase positive associations of food and in the long-term the child is more likely to have a decrease in unhealthy weight practices and substance abuse. Research shows children who eat regularly with their family do better in school than children who do not.
-- Try to limit meals away from home. Dining out should be for special occasions. The average American family dines out three times per week, not including fast-food lunches. Not only is it healthier to consume food at home, it is also cheaper.
-- Get children involved with grocery shopping and cooking. Children are receptive to learning and involving them in the purchasing and preparation process will enable them to make healthy choices away from home. The experience can also be used as an educational tool to reinforce healthy habits and may give the child a sense of satisfaction that they made a contribution.
-- Ensure your child is not watching television, using a computer or playing video games while consuming food. Electronics are a distraction and children, as well as adults, tend to miss important hunger cues that can result in eating past hunger.

Instilling healthy eating habits at a young age helps set your child up for success in the long run. Studies show that children who have healthy eating habits at a younger age will continue to have a healthier body weight as they age.

Advertising companies spend millions of dollars in research to determine which methods of advertising will appeal to most children. Grocery stores are set up so that high sugar items like cookies, cereals and cakes are within a child's reach. It is important to combat these items by reinforcing the healthy eating habits listed above.

If you take your child to the grocery store have them help with the grocery list, checking off the items, ensuring items not on the list are not placed in the cart, etc. The key is to keep it positive and fun. If your child really likes cookies, make them from scratch and use healthier options or substitutions.

If you make a conscious effort to eat healthy yourself, your family will follow suit. Keep in mind it is never too late to start making healthy decisions for you and your family.

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