WILLIAMSBURG — Jeremy Coste, 8, has made a resolution to cut one of his favorite foods out of his diet: nacho-flavored Doritos.
After learning to read nutritional labels during a six-week nutritional program at his elementary school, P.S. 250, Jeremy said he knows they're not the nutrient-packed foods that he needs to grow.
"If you don't eat what you need," he said, "your body packs it up and saves it."
The program, which also covers physical activity and portion size, is a pilot by Community Healthcare Network, which wanted to do early intervention education on nutrition at local schools. P.S. 250, located at 108 Montrose Ave., is the first school where it took place.
About 18 percent of children between 10 and 17 years old in New York state are considered overweight, according to a 2011 study by the National Survey of Children's Health. Another 15 percent are considered "obese."
Lifelong healthy habits need to start early — in the elementary school years — especially as many children don't receive the nutrients they need to grow, nutritionists said.
"Around that age, there's not a lot of nutrition information for children," said CHN nutritionist Maria C. Aguero-Martinez, who taught the pilot class.
"The program was basically created to empower them so that they can make small choices for themselves, like [drinking] water instead of soda."
It's not easy to get kids to eat healthy, but there are ways to help kids start thinking more about nutrients and to start making better food decisions, nutritionists said.
DNAinfo New York spoke with several children's health experts who offered ways that parents can help kids eat healthy early on, even when they'd rather pick up that bag of Doritos.
1. Build a routine and stick to it.
Make sure to set up time every day for children to eat a healthy breakfast, lunch, snack and dinner. If you regularly make breakfast a priority, for example, it will be easier to convince children to get on board with the idea, Aguero-Martinez said.
Structure will also help regulate their hunger to match mealtimes, thus helping them avoid unhealthy snacks that might pop up during their day, said nutritionist Natalia Stasenko.
And if a kid complains of being hungry just before a meal, it's okay to make them wait until you can serve a full, healthy meal, Stasenko said.
"Truthfully, feeling hungry for meals is not a bad thing," she said. "It helps them build an appetite and look forward to spending time at the table and spending time as a family."
2. If a kid says no to a healthy food, keep offering it anyway.
Many children miss out on important nutrients from fruits and vegetables due to being "picky eaters," said Maegan Ratliff, director of nutritional services at CHN.
It's normal for a kid to reject a portion of spinach or carrots some 15 to 20 times, but it's the parent's responsibilty to keep putting it on the table, anyway.
"You continue to prepare it and eat it yourself and see that it's a food that belongs to the family," Aguero-Martinez said. "We have to enjoy eating vegetables as a family for the kids to join in on the habit."
It may mean you have to get creative about the preparation, Ratliff said.
Roasting a veggie to bring out the sweetness, for example, may make it more appealing than a steamed or pan-seared veggie, she said, and cutting up fruits into bite size portions may make them less overwhelming to eat.
3. Involve them in their own food.
Stasenko suggests taking kids grocery shopping to expose them to what a healthy lifestyle looks like. Then, at mealtimes, she suggests serving dishes family style in the middle of the table so that children can serve themselves.
Even if they start off avoiding the good stuff, seeing parents continuously eating the more nutritious options will push them in the right direction.
"It helps them feel more in charge of what they're eating," she said. "They become more interested in other foods that they may reject or leave uneaten on their plates."
Educating kids on how to pick healthy portion sizes and foods — instead of just serving food up — also helps them make decisions on their own.
To demonstrate how much sugar is in soda and juice, for example, Aguero-Martinez had children read drink labels and calculate how many teaspoons of sugar were actually in the beverages and then put that amount of sugar in empty bottles.
The visual comparison between 15 teaspoons in sodas or juices and zero teaspoons in water surprised some students, who then declared that they would stop drinking as many sugary beverages.
"Even having that knowledge makes all the difference," Ratliff said.
4. Expose them to a variety of foods.
Try presenting several different kinds of one food and allowing the kid to try them all out as "little critics," even as a game instead of at a meal, Stasenko said.
It doesn't necessarily have to be fruits or vegetables to start with — any type of food can help get the kid more interested in what they're eating, she said. The love of food will eventually lead them to find nutritious foods that they enjoy.
"Interest in eating is contagious," Stasenko said. "By being interested in different kinds of food, children will extend their interest in fruits and vegetables."
5. Be a good role model.
More important than anything else, parents also need to demonstrate a positive attitude toward healthy eating for kids to catch onto the habit.
The adults at the table have to eat the vegetables, too, and parents can't treat desserts as a reward to finishing healthy foods.
"We have to enjoy eating vegetables as a family for the kids to join in that habit," Aguero-Martinez said.
But if a busy schedule or the cost of fresh produce makes healthy eating seem overwhelming, don't stress out, Ratliff said.
Start with canned or frozen veggies, or choose one habit at a time to change, she said.
"It's not going to happen overnight, for the child or the parent," Ratliff said. "The parent goes through the same thing that the kid goes through. They need to take things step by step."