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Parents struggle to keep the junk food out of little mouths

Only 17 percent of parents say their child’s diet is very healthy, according to a recent national poll by the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital. | THINKSTOCK.COM IMAGES

Kelly Hall, a 35-year-old working mother of three children — ages three, eight and 15 — admits that her family eats fast food three times a week.

Compared to her husband who gives into their children’s whining a little more often, she is a strict parent who understands that junk food causes dental and other health problems. But her full-time job as a personal shopper in Washington, D.C., and her husband’s job play a big role in making their children’s diet “not very healthy,” she says.

“It’s not easy to take the kids to a grocery store and pick the right things. They always want the sugary things,” Hall said.

Ninety-seven percent of parents in the U.S. think that childhood eating habits determine children’s health for their lifetime, but only 17 percent say their child’s diet is very healthy, according to a recent national poll by the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital. The national survey, published on Feb. 20, was taken in October 2016 among 1,767 parents with at least one child age four to 18.

According to the survey:

— 73% rate their children’s diet as very or mostly healthy.
— 7% rate their children’s diet as somewhat or not healthy.
— 34% are confident they are shaping good eating habits of their children.
— 21% say it is somewhat or not important to cut down on junk food or fast food.
— 16% believe it is somewhat or not important to reduce sugary drinks.
— 13% say it is somewhat or not important that their child eats fruits and vegetables every day.

Sarah Clark, the survey’s co-director and associate research scientist at the University of Michigan, said there should be more understanding that it’s not easy for many parents to provide a regular, healthy diet for their children. She suggested parents take away this message: “You are not alone. For most of us, this feels like an unending battle.”

Clark said she was stumped by the result that one in five parents do not think it’s important to limit unhealthy food, even though most of them know they should. But she realized after analyzing the data that such an attitude is prevalent among parents of teenagers.

“When my boys were teens, their appetites were boundless — and at a certain point, it almost didn’t matter what they were eating,” she said. “So my guess is that other parents may be having the same feelings.”

The survey results are positive in the sense that most parents recognize that healthy eating is the goal, Clark said. But there’s a problem if one in four parents in the country acknowledge that their kids’ diet is not the ideal, she said.

Parents face several day-to-day challenges, but the main problem (70%) behind an unhealthy diet is the high cost of healthy food. The next reason (60%) is children’s preference for sugary and fatty food. Parents with a low-income level and low education have a hard time determining which foods are healthy (52%), or those food are unavailable where they shop (23%).

Research shows that frequent consumption of fast food leads to heart disease, obesity, headaches, acne, high blood pressure, dental problems and high cholesterol. Diet also affects mental health. People with a low-quality diet — processed meat, chocolates, sweet desserts, fried food, refined cereals and high-fat dairy products — are more likely to suffer from depression, according to Katherine Zeratsky, a certified dietitian in the American Dietetic Association.

Stephen Daniels, chief pediatrician at Children’s Hospital Colorado, said the results are not surprising because it reflects the tensions parents face around their own diet and that of their kids. “Families and kids are busy, and they often want convenience as part of their choices,” Daniels said.

Buying healthy food takes more money and time for many, but especially for low-income parents. “As a society, we need to ensure that healthier food choices are the easier choices for families and children to make,” said Amy Moyer, vice president of field operations at Action for Healthy Kids, a Chicago-based non-profit organization.

Daniels, Natalie Muth from the American Academy of Pediatrics, health and wellness counselor Rebecca Stritchfield, and Moyer, provide the following advice for parents to help their kids maintain more nutritious diets:

famConcern 1: Healthy food is too expensive
Meals prepared at home are cheaper than eating out. If fresh food is too costly, buy frozen or canned food. They are cheaper and just as nutritious. To avoid the excessive sugar or salt in canned food, rinse the products before eating.

Make a list before you go to a grocery store and only buy what’s on the list. Check unit price and select less expensive items.

Buy fruits and vegetables when they are in season.

Buy in bulk.

Collect coupons from paper or online and shop at discount stores.Take advantage of deals your local grocery store may have each week.

Concern 2: I don’t have the time or knowledge for this
Plan ahead. Spend your weekend preparing for meals for the upcoming week. Talk to your kids about what they want to eat. Cut vegetables and put them in containers so they are ready to cook when you’re back from work.
Start early. Introduce healthy foods to infants because this is a crucial time that establishes children’s diet preference — and it gets harder as they get older.

Make a piece of fruit or a vegetable serving part of your child’s plate for all three meals a day. Choose fruits and vegetables over processed food and water over soda or energy drinks.

Allow your children to shop and cook with you. They'll feel proud of their effort to set dinner for the family and be more inclined to eat food they helped prepare. |THINKSTOCK.COM IMAGES

Allow your children to shop and cook with you. They’ll feel proud of their effort to set dinner for the family and be more inclined to eat food they helped prepare. |THINKSTOCK.COM IMAGES

Concern 3: My child is a picky eater
A hungry child will eat. They can decide on how much they eat, but you as a parent decide what food the family eats. Include healthy foods that your child already likes with meals. If carrots are a favorite, have them often with dinner or cut fruit for cereal or yogurt parfaits.

Allow your children to shop and cook with you. They’ll feel proud of their effort to set dinner for the family and be more inclined to eat food they helped prepare.

Give creative names to foods. Examples: X-ray Vision Carrots, Super Strength Spinach, Super Tuna Noodles or Big Bad Bean Burrito.

Have finger foods available. Put fruits and vegetables in small bags and place them at your child’s eye level in the refrigerator for an easy grab and go snack.

Try different recipes. The same vegetable may taste better for your child depending on how you cook it.

Jueun Choi, USA TODAY