Being a parent requires making many choices, and choosing your child’s snacks wisely should be near the top of the list. These days, the dangers from not eating right are serious. “The percentage of overweight youths ages 12 to 19 in the United States has nearly quadrupled between 1976 and 2004,” says David Zinczenko, author of Eat This, Not That! For Kids! In fact, 17 percent of this country’s youth are overweight.

In addition to becoming obese, kids are more susceptible to cardiovascular risks and diabetes. The Center for Disease Control recently predicted that one in three kids born in the year 2000 will develop diabetes in his or her lifetime. The common form of diabetes, Type 2, is caused by years of poor eating habits, warns Zinczenko.

While some critics are quick to point fingers at lifestyle habits, Zinczenko suggests otherwise. “It’s not the TV, and it’s not the Internet, and it’s not the video games or the cell phones or the iPods,” he says. “It’s not the culture that’s endangering our children’s health. It’s the food.”

What’s happening to our food? Zinczenko says sweeteners are added to foods that naturally don't contain much sugar, meals are super-sized, which adds an average of 73 percent more calories, and trans fats – used to make chips crispier or cookies tastier – increase bad cholesterol. And our drinking habits? A study from the University of North Carolina found that we consume 450 calories a day from beverages alone!

Need ideas for how to get your child’s eating habits under control? Here are Zinczenko’s suggestions:

  • Never skip breakfast. Breakfast eaters receive more fiber, calcium, and other nutrients than those who skip the meal.
  • Snack with purpose: Try popcorn (easy on the butter and salt, of course), fruit, or even dark chocolate. “The point is not to deny food, but to teach our children to crave foods that are healthy,” says Zinczenko.
  • Beware of portion distortion. Buy smaller bowls and cups.
  • Drink responsibly. Cut back on soda and sweetened beverages. Keep cold, filtered water in the fridge. A supply of cut-up limes, oranges, or lemons to flavor the water entices thirsty kids.
  • Eat more whole foods and fewer science experiments. The shorter the ingredient list, the healthier it is.
  • Kick the sugar habit. Steer clear of high-fructose corn syrup, which constitutes more than 40 percent of caloric sweeteners in food and drinks.
  • Eat the rainbow. Create a colorful diet – red (tomato and watermelon), orange (sweet potato and winter squash), yellow (corn and banana), green (asparagus and avocado), and purple (beet and blueberry).
  • Set the table. Eat meals as a family as much as possible. What’s better? Cook together.
Boost Your Nutrients

Since your child may not eat the recommended daily amounts of fruits and veggies, Zinczenko also suggests where to find five nutrients commonly lacking from her regimen:

  • Calcium (for dense bones and muscle functions): leafy veggies, broccoli, oranges, milk
  • Iron (for energy and immune system): lean red meat, tofu, mushrooms
  • Vitamin D (for strong bones and teeth) : milk, eggs, salmon, shrimp
  • Vitamin E (for healthy cell communication): sunflower seeds, almonds, olives
  • Fiber (to fight diabetes and cholesterol): whole fruits and grains, beans, berries
Try This, Skip That

When picking snacks, it’s common to reach for what’s easy and tasty: desserts, fried foods, and carbs. Below, Zinczenko offers alternatives:

Fats/Oils
  • Eat This: olive/canola oil, fats from nuts, avocado                                
  • Not That: stick margarine, palm oil
Dairy
  • Eat This: 2 percent milk, string/cottage cheese, plain yogurt
  • Not That: chocolate milk, ice cream, “fruit on the bottom” yogurt

Meat, Fish, Poultry                                         

  • Eat This: grilled chicken breast, roast pork tenderloin, sirloin steak
  • Not That: chicken fingers, cheeseburgers, crispy chicken sandwiches
Veggies           
  • Eat This: sauteed spinach, steamed broccoli, roasted mushrooms, baby carrots
  • Not That: chips, onion rings, eggplant parmesan                                                                   
Fruit
  • Eat This: sliced apples/pears, stone fruit (plums, apricots), 100 percent fruit smoothies
  • Not That: smoothies made with sherbet/frozen yogurt, more than one 8-oz. glass of juice/day
Grains
  • Eat This: brown rice, whole grain bread/pasta, oatmeal
  • Not That: pasta, muffins, tortillas, pancakes, heavily sweetened cereal                                         
Eating Out

Finally, if you must eat out, choose sensibly. “The restaurant industry has declared war on our kids’ waistlines,” says Zinczenko. The Big Dipper French Toastix at Denny’s, Turkey Minis and Fries at Ruby Tuesday’s, and Chicken Lo Mein at P.F. Chang’s, for example, are among the worst 20 meals for your child.