Everybody loves a chubby child—those pinch-able cheeks and plump pot-bellies are irresistible! Why do most moms prefer tubby tots to thin ones? There may be an evolutionary explanation—new science suggests that it's just the way we're wired.

Recent research from the University of Maryland found that mothers who were given pictures of different-sized toddlers preferred the look of plump babies to underweight ones, and a whopping 70 percent underestimated the weight of their own child. The majority of mamas surveyed were overweight or obese.
Baby fat is adorable, but by the toddler years you need to get real about weight—if your baby's a butterball at 2, he'll have a harder time later in life.

Talk to your pediatrician about the ideal weight range for your child, and nutrition practices you should think about when feeding him.

Some of the prime culprits in childhood obesity are quick foods and convenience items targeted to busy moms. Dr. Greg Lawton, author of the blog A Musing Pediatrician and a specialist in childhood nutrition issues, says that with proper planning families can escape the fast food trap. "Try to plan meals ahead so that stopping off for a pizza or take out burger is not the default", Dr. Lawton advises. "Get the kids involved in making some of the dinner—they can open the bag of carrots and put the hummus on a plate, add the pasta to the water...food and family should be the main ingredients."

When substituting sensible snacks and meals for the usual sugar and fat-filled fare keep these basic principles in mind:

  • Scratch food first. Resist the temptation to pop into the drive-thru. Not only is fast food filled with salt and saturated fat, it contains unhealthy additives. For example, a typical fast food chicken nugget contains up to twenty questionable chemicals—including tertiary butylhydroquinone (TBHQ) that's related to lighter fluid, and dimethylpolysiloxane, a silicone-based preservative. If your budding epicure is already hooked on greasy fare, make your own versions at home. If your tiny eater gobbles up chicken fingers, enlist his help in making them from scratch. Whip up a batch of homemade chicken "nuggets" using lean meat and a little oil for frying, or pop them in the oven to crisp up without extra fat.
  • Summer swaps. Avoid the tinkling bells of the ice cream truck when temperatures soar. There's no harm in an occasional indulgence, but you need to choose your summer treats wisely. Instead of a sundae smothered in candy toppings and sticky sauce, get a cup or cone filled with flavored frozen yogurt topped off with fresh berries. If you must have a pint of the sweet stuff, read the label. High-fructose corn syrup is believed to increase risks of obesity, so stick to ice cream that's naturally sweetened with cane sugar, honey or agave.
  • Naturally sweet. Your little one's got a serious sweet tooth, so introduce him to wholesome, delectable treats. Sprinkle a bit of honey over a bowl of fresh fruit and yogurt, or dip sliced bananas into semi-sweet chocolate. If your kid's a cookie fiend, Ditch the highly processed high-fructose corn syrup in packaged treats, and opt for fresh baked goods from your local bakery. Look for wholesome ingredients like honey, raw cane sugar and whole wheat. For older toddlers, a hint of honey drizzled atop most dishes will satisfy sweet cravings.
  • Mom's mac-n-cheese. What kid doesn't love macaroni and cheese from a box? As "lovely" as the mushy orange-yellow pasta looks, packaged mac-n-cheese contains some spine-tingling ingredients including; yellow dye no. 5 made from tar, petroleum-based yellow dye no. 6 and red dye made from ground up spiders (seriously). Please your picky eater's palate and quell your fears by whipping up a baked batch of cheesy pasta at home, complete with puréed squash or minced veggies for a nutritional punch. If you can't manage homemade, opt for an organic version with whole-wheat pasta, natural flavoring with no chemicals added.
  • Pizza parties. Commercially prepared pizzas are covered in greasy ingredients and unhealthy toppings, giving this Italian staple a bad rap. If your family goes gaga for pies, err on the side of nutrition when placing your order. Nix processed meat toppings such as pepperoni and sausage, and substitute with vegetables your family likes, such as tomatoes, mushrooms or olives. Ask for a whole wheat crust with easy cheese, to lighten the fat content. At home, use organic ingredients of your own choosing and spice up your pie with no-salt seasonings.
  • Snack attacks. It's too easy to reach for a bag of chips come snack time, so it's crucial to make snacks that are convenient for when hunger strikes little appetites. Bake apple slices for a satisfying crunch, or pop up low-sodium, no butter popcorn. For store-bought fare, opt for snack mixes filled with raisins, nuts and granola or low-fat string cheese.

Above all, don't try to trick your toddler into good eating habits or use unhealthy foods as a reward. Focus on training tiny taste buds so that your child will develop healthier eating habits for life. By separating the "good" foods from the "bad" foods, your kid learns to associate healthy eating with work, not fun and family. Instead, serve up a variety of nutritious options and let your child choose—you'll be putting your budding eater on the path to good health for years to come.