Healthy eating for kids: How to talk to them about good food habits

Parents should model healthy eating behaviors for their kids and let them quit eating when they're full.

(CNN)"Finish your plate and you can ..."

Eat dessert. Get a toy. Go out and play. Or just excuse yourself and get away from these horrific adults talking about their boring jobs.
Bribing kids to finish all of their lima beans and broccoli is a parenting crutch with deep roots.
What many don't know, though, is that a growing body of scientific evidence has suggested tactics like that one are counterproductive and could potentially lead to childhood obesity.
    "Children are born with an ability to eat to their energy needs and then stop," said Alexis Wood, an assistant professor of nutrition at Baylor College of Medicine, and lead author of a new scientific statement from the American Heart Association.
    Rather than focusing on how much their child eats, parents should model how they want their children to eat and create a home environment structured to foster positive habits.
    That's according to the statement, "Caregiver Influences on Eating Behaviors in Young Children," which summarizes years of scientific research on the topic.
    By modeling, parents can give kids a framework to help set their little ones up healthy eating habits as they mature.
    In short, it's not just about what food kids eat. It's how they eat.

    Don't tell your kids to eat more than they really need

    There's growing science around allowing children to self-regulate their appetites to prevent reducing obesity in children.
    It comes down to this: "Don't make (your kids) eat when they don't want to," Wood said. "Be responsive to their cues."
    There's been an "explosion of research" in recent years supporting the scientific consensus that how children eat is very important to their health, she added.
    Children between ages 2 and 5 often become picky about the foods they eat, developing an urge to show control over their bodies and their surroundings.
    But in trying to coerce kids into eating healthy foods such as whole grains or vegetables, parents could inadvertently make their children overeat.
    Habits like those can make kids become overweight "even if the foods are healthy," Wood said.
    "During that time, if your goal as a parent is to say come hell or high water, you kids have to eat healthy, then you have to use tactics to get them to eat those foods," Wood said.
    Often that means holding out rewards like dessert or video games if a child finishes all of her vegetables.
    To try and kickstart healthy eating behaviors in their kids, many parents find themselves offering rewards or incentives to kids who keep eating, even if it's past the point of fullness.
    Don't do that, Wood said. It's important to eat for your own internal satiety, not for an external reward.
    If switching mindsets seems hard, don't worry, Wood can empathize. Taking these shortcuts happens to the best of us.
    Wood once dangled the metaphorical carrot of a pack of Pokemon cards to her son if he ate some mushrooms he didn't like. (Not her best move, she confessed.)
    "We're all going to do our best," she said. "I've seen how difficult this can be. None of us would say, 'We did this. It worked perfectly.'"
    Pairing nutritious foods like carrots and parsnips with something sweeter, like a dipping sauce, is a way of helping kids warm up to healthier choices.

    Five habits to embrace

    The AHA's dietary recommendations for families sound many familiar themes, including a balanced diet with whole grains, proteins, fruits and vegetables.
    It's important to limit sugar and salt, according to, the parenting site of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Of course kids love sugary treats such as cookies or soda. They taste great, but these are empty calories and don't provide a lot of nutritional value.
    Dietary salt is linked to high blood