Parents are frustrated about feeding children, said Mary Hess, president of the American Dietetic Association.
"The dinner table is a battleground, and parents do not know the rules."
Twenty percent of the children in the United States are overweight because of diet, heredity and other problems, said Dr. Daniel Shea, vice president of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
"If they do not slim down by adolescence, the chance is they'll never do it."
Their comments are the reasons why the ADA, the AAP and the Food Marketing Institute have begun Healthy Start: Food to Grow On, a program to develop eating habits in young children. It is a non-governmental campaign that involves physicians, dietitians and grocers and is designed to help parents make healthful food choices.
"The supermarket is the perfect place to make changes," said Margaret McEwan, director of consumer information for Shaw's Supermarkets in East Bridgewater, Mass.
"It shows that the supermarket cares and has the added benefit of an increase in sales," she told a group of food writers at the Food Marketing Institute convention in Chicago in May.
The subjects of the campaign are children aged 2 to 6 years, but the target group to reach is parents.
"Young children are largely an overlooked group because they are an educational challenge," said Robert O. Aders, FMI president. "All of us have the obligation to spread the word about the three main nutritional problems involving children: obesity, high cholesterol and high blood pressure."
Here's how the program is to work:
A series of four consumer nutrition brochures with illustrated information on children's eating habits will be distributed in a kit to FMI supermarket members, who may reproduce the brochures themselves. The supermarket kit also includes suggestions for in-store programs and promotions, which individual
supermarkets can implement at their option.
There are suggestions for numerous activities at the supermarket level, and the stores may use whatever seems to fit with their particular situations, said Ms. McEwan. After the Shaw's pilot program, a poll showed that 94 percent of customers considered the material useful and that 65 percent had picked up a brochure on their own while shopping.
Healthy Start also will publish a quarterly newsletter for parents, covering a variety of nutrition subjects including sugars and sweeteners, physical activity and fast food. Participating pediatricians can buy the brochures for distribution in their offices, while the ADA will offer bulk copies of the materials to registered dietitians and other health professionals.
"This is an attempt to put something together," said Mr. Shea. "Heretofore we've had a fragmented approach."
Some of the information contained in the brochures may challenge common beliefs about feeding young children. For instance, Ms. Hess said that breakfast is a very important meal and food does not have to be limited.
"There's frozen yogurt, pizza, chicken, spaghetti -- all of which are good and work. If you insist on cereal, add some cold fruit and try not to use too much sugar."
One brochure tells parents not to be too concerned if their child seems to not be eating enough.
"A child who is growing well is probably getting enough to eat," it states. Another tip to parents is to forget "forbidden" foods: "Sweets and fatty snack foods in small amounts are OK. Just remember balance, variety and moderation."
"Kids use food selection to assert their independence," said Ms. Hess, "so parents should provide options, but not necessarily too wide a range of options. You don't ask a 3-year-old, 'What do you want for dinner?'
"But children should have some freedom to eat as much or as little as they need without rewards or playing emotional power games."
So far 22 supermarket chains nationwide have expressed an interest in the Healthy Start program, though it is just starting, Ms. McEwan said.