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updated 5/3/2007 9:10:50 AM ET 2007-05-03T13:10:50

Getting kids to eat healthy isn't easy.

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Even when you take time to prepare a low-fat meal with plenty of vegetables, there's no guarantee they'll eat it. At the school cafeteria, it's all too easy for students to buy french fries and chicken nuggets.

And though your child may burn off some excess calories by playing sports, there's usually one parent who brings enough doughnuts to practice for the whole team.

We've all heard the ugly statistics.

From 2003 to 2004, about 17.1 percent of children and adolescents ages 2 to 19 in the United States, or 12.5 million kids, were considered overweight by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Overweight adolescents often become obese adults. While America isn't alone in this trend, it has the highest prevalence of obesity among developed nations.

What kids are eating isn't the only problem. Beyond genetic factors, children become overweight when there's an imbalance between their eating habits and their physical activity.

But it is one problem experts say parents can tackle with a little effort.

Parental priorities
Making healthy meals takes some planning, says Ronni Litz Julien, a registered dietitian and author of "What Should I Feed My Kids?" That can be difficult for working parents struggling to get home in time to pick their kids up from their latest extracurricular activity.

But it can be done — if you put in the time. Too many parents apparently don't.

"I just don't think this is as much a priority as it needs to be," she says. "There should be a mailer that goes out to every single family's mailbox in this country that says, 'Here's the statistics. Your kids are going to live a two- to five-years' shorter life span than you are if you don't at least make the attempt.'"

Litz Julien and Elisa Zied — a registered dietitian and author of "Feed Your Family Right!" — both began teaching their children healthy habits from the moment they started eating solid food.

If you didn't, however, it's not too late.

Start making small changes, like replacing some of your kids' high-sugar cereals with just-as-fun high-fiber versions. Switch to baked potato chips, and keep 100-calorie snack packs around the house. Leave fruit out on the kitchen counter. And let your child have birthday cake at a party, but remind him or her to have one piece, not three.

Zied says you need to eat with your kids to show them how to be healthy — and not just at dinner time.

"There's no excuse not to eat breakfast with your kids," she says. "It takes maybe 20 minutes top to bottom, and it's really important for them to see you eat and feel positive about food."

Choose your battles
You probably already know that force-feeding your children fruits and vegetables often doesn't work. But that doesn't mean you should give up.

While Zied's older son happily downs steamed broccoli, her younger son won't touch it. Instead of forcing the issue, Zied still puts it on his plate to expose him to it, but she finds other ways to sneak vegetables into his diet. For instance, she slips carrots into his chicken meatballs and serves pasta with chunky tomato sauce. Her pancake recipe includes a little bit of batter and a lot of bananas or apple sauce. Bean burritos get stuffed with a few extra vegetables, too.

If Litz Julien's 14-year-old daughter refuses to eat a healthy meal she normally likes, she is not given another option or a snack. If it's a meal she really can't stand, Litz Julien will let her pop a healthy frozen dinner in the microwave or make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

"You try to do enough exposure to what everybody likes," Litz Julien says. "If they don't like something, I am willing to work with them. But I'm not making two meals."

Litz Julien and Zied also don't forbid their children from eating fast food. Once a month or every six weeks, Litz Julien takes the family to Burger King for charbroiled burgers, and she'll have a kid's meal, too. Zied also sometimes lets her kids have chicken nuggets or French fries — just not every day.

Play it cool
Another way to prevent the dinner table from turning into a battle field is to stay positive, Zied says.

Don't talk negatively about yourself or your body in front of your kids, or scold your children for what they're eating.

Instead, try to respect their preferences, create healthy options and get them involved in food selection and preparation. Let them crack the egg or stir the sauce. You'll have fun, and it might encourage them to try a new food.

"The more happy a home you create," she says, "the less likely you are to have food struggles that may lead to an eating disorder or unhealthy eating habits."

© 2012 Forbes.com

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