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Here’s one way to help kids develop more healthy eating habits: Give them a whisk and get them involved in whipping up dinner.

They also can select vegetables and fruits at the market, pick basil leaves for pesto, form meatballs, or bake muffins. Getting them involved in meal preparation is the key.

“They take ownership of the family meals,” said Sanna Delmonico, who heads Napa, Calif.-based Tiny Tummies, which helps parents raise healthy eaters. “They’re committed to the food and the process.”

Culinary teacher and author Joyce Goldstein echoed: “It’s a whole issue of control."

“Let them pick out the food,” added Goldstein, who has three grown children and three grandchildren. “They also have a palate. And they want to assert it and show what they like to eat.”

Encouraging kids to develop healthy eating habits is a hot topic. First lady Michelle Obama and British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver have launched crusades to battle childhood obesity.

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, obesity prevalence among children and adolescents in this country has almost tripled since 1980. Approximately 17% (or 12.5 million) of children and adolescents aged 2—19 years are obese. The above chart shows the trends since the 1960s by age group.

Delmonico and Goldstein, who earlier this year teamed a workshop on children’s nutrition, offered these suggestions for getting children more involved in preparing meals:

  • Give kids hands-on experience making a dish such as pesto. “Kids can pick the basil leaves off the stem,” said Goldstein, whose grandson Adam has cooked with her at the Culinary Institute of America’s Napa Valley campus doing just such a task. “They can put the leaves in the food processor. They can turn it off on.”
  • “Watering plants (like herbs and tomatoes), peeling garlic, shucking corn,” said Delmonico, who’s also a nutrition instructor at the CIA's Napa Valley campus.
  • “Kids love to roll meatballs,” said Goldstein. “They volunteer like crazy. Anything with hand work is a big thing.”
  • At the farmers’ market, “let them make some decisions,” added Goldstein. “They could pick out the food.”
  • “They can peel bananas — though not very neatly,” Delmonico laughed. “They can tear lettuce.”

Delmonico has personal experience with yet another approach: Let children grow their own vegetables. Her daughter, now 16, didn’t like tomatoes … until she got her own cherry tomato plant. “She couldn’t stop eating the tomatoes,” Delmonico quipped.

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