AS VIRTUALLY EVERY PARENT HAS LEARNED, it’s much easier to get kids to eat ice cream than broccoli. But increasing evidence suggests that helping a child to make healthy food choices today can provide a lifetime health benefit.

“What children eat matters,” says physician and nutrition specialist Ann Kulze, of Charleston, S.C. “Children aren’t just little adults. They’re growing and developing. You can’t go back and rebuild the house—the foundation is set.”

Kitchen-Smart Kids

If getting your children to eat healthy is a challenge, nutrition specialist Ann Kulze, the author of the Eat Right for Life book series, has some tips.

  • Keep junk food out of the house. And keep healthy snacks like fruits and veggies cut up and handy.
  • Include your kids in meal preparation. Children are more likely to eat and enjoy a healthy meal they helped prepare.
  • Make meals colorful and fun. One idea: fruit or veggie kabobs that include lots of different colored produce.
  • Lead by example. If kids see their parents eating healthy, they will learn to do so, too.

Research has shown that a poor foundation—eating too much or eating unhealthy foods—may increase the risk of cancer during adulthood. For example, a study published in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention in March 2010 found that women with a high-fat diet during adolescence had a greater incidence of adult breast cancer than women with a low-fat diet. Studies have also found that obese children are more likely to become obese adults. According to the National Cancer Institute, adult obesity has been shown to increase the risk of esophageal, pancreatic, endometrial, kidney, thyroid and gallbladder cancers.

Healthy Bean Salad

A kid-pleasing, healthy dish.

  • 2 cans black beans, rinsed
  • 1 small can sweet corn, rinsed
  • 1 bunch fresh cilantro, chopped
  • Juice of 1 lime
  • Splash of rice wine vinegar or more to taste
  • 2-3 tbsp olive oil (extra virgin is best)
  • 1 red bell pepper, chopped
  • ½ red onion, chopped
  • 1 peeled and seeded cucumber, chopped
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Dash of Tabasco
Mix together and let sit for several minutes so flavors marry.

Helping kids develop good eating habits influences their adult diets, too, according to Kulze. “We know that lifelong dietary habits are largely established during youth,” she says. “What kids do during their childhood is setting the foundation for how they eat for the rest of their lives.”

So what’s a parent of a picky eater to do? See Kitchen-Smart Kids above for tips on how to guide kids toward healthy food choices. It’s never too early—or too late—to begin introducing healthier foods into your family’s diet.