Recently, Monique Randolph's oldest son told her he was tired of the seafood they often had for dinner.
"What do you want?" she asked. He didn't know, so together they found a multicultural cookbook for children at the library. And thus began the Randolph family's culinary trip around the world.
Peanut soup from Ghana was one highlight. Randolph, her two sons and their friend shelled, roasted and processed the peanuts. They combined the resulting butter with yams and other savory ingredients - and liked the results.
The Randolphs, who live in Towson, also made ginger ale with fresh ginger, seltzer and sugar water. "It may not have been the most nutritious [drink]," but, "just getting them involved with the whole process" was the most important part of the project, says Randolph, a registered dietitian at the Urban Medical Institute in Baltimore.
Children need a well-balanced diet, not just for their physical development but also to prepare them for success in school. Along with reading to and talking with young children - as encouraged by The Sun's 4-year-old Reading by 9 campaign - it is also important to ensure that they are eating well by 9. Parents can give their kids a boost by helping them establish good eating habits.
The link between nutrition and performance has long been acknowledged among athletes. Now, some researchers are beginning to examine the same connection with regard to good eating habits and academic success. Nutritious meals consumed in a classroom breakfast program improved school performance in 12 Maryland elementary schools, according to preliminary findings released last year by the state Department of Education.
But any attempt by caregivers to achieve perfect nutritional balance is meaningless without setting a good example, providing sociable mealtimes and allowing flexibility, nutrition experts say.
As a dietitian, Randolph is particularly attuned to her family's nutritional needs and eating habits. She's also attuned to the need for a light-handed approach to healthful eating, one that welcomes new food experiences and doesn't outlaw occasional splurges.
"It's all about learning," Randolph says. "I'm the first to admit I don't have all of the answers." But by taking advantage of children's natural curiosity, she is helping her sons, Michael, 10, and Matthew, 7, establish a wholesome relationship with food.
The current wisdom on healthful eating habits is simple, and it takes pressure off anyone who has ever struggled with a picky eater:
"Parents are responsible for what is presented to eat and the manner in which it is presented. Children are responsible for how much and even whether they eat," writes Ellyn Satter in her book, How to Get Your Kid to Eat ... But Not Too Much (Bull Publishing Co., $16.95).
In other words, children can learn to regulate their caloric intake and make wise choices if given the opportunity.
As in other areas of child-rearing, caregivers must be sound role models, Randolph says. "We learn from our parents, they learn from their parents. If good habits aren't established, then people have that issue when they're older and carry it to their kids as well."
A child develops habits "more from the way you handle feeding and from the foods you present to him, and consume yourself, than from anything you say about nutrition and eating," Satter writes. In other words, kids will do what you do, not what you say they should do.
Unfortunately, parents often start with the negative - focusing more on what children shouldn't eat than on what they should. But nutritionists say that restricting indulgent foods will always backfire.
Telling kids they can't eat certain foods increases their interest in eating them, and can even "foster consumption in the absence of hunger," Pennsylvania State University researcher Leann L. Birch told a 1998 symposium on childhood obesity sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"So what do you do instead?" she asked. "We need to help parents to understand what are reasonable portion sizes for children, so that parents have reasonable expectations."
Birch reminded her audience that children have a natural preference for sweet and salty foods, but must learn to like all other foods. Her advice to parents: patience. "It's only with repeated presentations, noncoercive presentations, that kids learn to eat a lot of those foods."
Deborah Rhoades, a nutrition educator for the Maryland Department of Education and a mother of three sons, ages 4, 6 and 10, cautions parents not to get obsessed with the obesity issue.
While childhood obesity is increasing, most children are not grossly overweight, the registered dietitian says. "Sometimes we want to treat their diets like adult diets. We zero in on things we shouldn't have. A child is growing and needs the proper variety of nutrients, and enough energy - calories - and adequate protein to support growth."