New Sensible Eating Rules for Kids

Every day at 6:15 p.m., 4-year-old Payton and 7-year-old Avery Lumeng sit down for dinner with their parents, who let them eat as much or as little as they'd like. They're free to be excused when they're finished—even if it's after only 15 minutes. If they're hungry when it's not mealtime, they eat snacks—including occasional cookies and candies. "If you have all these hard and fast rules—'My children are never going to eat candy'—it makes it all the more tempting," explains their mom, Dr. Julie Lumeng of the University of Michigan's department of pediatrics and Center for Human Growth and Development. She should know: she worked on "Healthy From the Start," a new booklet on healthy eating just out from the nonprofit group Zero to Three ( and endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

In the booklet, Lumeng and her colleagues redefine the rules of healthy eating for kids. Faced with a childhood-obesity epidemic (about one in six U.S. kids is fat), experts are realizing that old adages, like "Clean your plate," have become obsolete. "Many of my patients come from the clean-your-plate club," says obesity expert Robert Kushner, professor of medicine at Northwestern University. The new guidelines suggest that parents provide kids with regular mealtimes and a good variety of foods—then chill out. Excerpts:

Don't force-feed. Kids need to learn to stop eating when they're full. So, don't berate them if they've left spinach on their plates, and don't guilt-trip them with stories about hunger in Somalia. "You don't want the dinner table to be a battleground," says Kushner. "Food should be a source of bonding and enjoyment." If your kids repeatedly turn down veggies, just keep offering them. "Sooner or later, kids will learn to like most things," says Ellyn Satter, author of "Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family."

Don't use food as a reward. Resist the temptation to say, "Two more bites of that chicken, and you earn a brownie." Dealmaking teaches kids not to do anything unless they get a prize. And, of course, it also encourages them to overeat.

Don't ban anything. A 2002 study of girls ages 5 to 7, published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, showed that girls whose access to snacks was restricted were more likely to gorge on food than their peers. Don't be a short-order cook. Instead of making separate dishes for each finicky child, serve a variety of foods—a protein, vegetables, bread, fruit and milk. "Pair familiar with unfamiliar foods, favorite with not-so-favorite," says Satter.

Let them get up. Don't force your kids to sit through dinner if they're done. Ten or 15 minutes is more than enough table time for a toddler to get full, says Lumeng.

Talk to your doctor. Still worried your kids aren't eating enough or too much? Check with your doctor, who charts their growth to make sure it's consistent. Chances are, they're doing just fine.