More than nine million children and teens in the U.S. are obese. But you can help your child develop healthy eating habits and prevent obesity with a few nutritional tweaks. Here are 10 easy ways to help your child stay fit and eat well:

1. Don't force your child to clean her plate. Obesity may be triggered by overeating at a very young age, and "Children are much better at self-regulating their food intake than adults," says Alison Massey, RD, of Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. "Provide your baby or toddler with smaller portions and let her eat as much as she wants at a meal or a snack."

2. Introduce your child to the Mediterranean Diet. Research shows that the Mediterranean diet can reduce the incidence of heart disease and hypertension (high blood pressure). As soon as your child is old enough to eat solids, you can start to introduce elements of the diet, which emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans.

3. Cook with olive oil. This is what Martha McKittrick, RD, of New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill-Cornell Medical Center in New York City advises. When you prepare chicken, for instance, sauté it in olive oil, and use olive oil in place of butter whenever possible.

4. Incorporate more beans into your child's meals. Prepare homemade bean soup, pureed bean dip served with baby carrots, or nachos made with baked whole wheat tortilla chips, salsa, black beans, and a sprinkling of lowfat cheese.

5. Get smart about snacks. "Get processed foods out of the house and replace them with more natural foods," McKittrick says. Instead of potato chips, offer apple or banana slices spread with almond butter, or whole wheat pita served with hummus or guacamole, she advises.

6. Get your child to love fish. Cook fish for your child, says Sharon Zarabi, RD, CDN, CPT, a nutritionist and fitness trainer at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. Salmon and other fatty fish are recommended since they're high in omega-3 fatty acids, which are necessary for brain development. Bake or grill the salmon. If your child turns up her nose, try cutting fish into fun shapes using cookie cutters, or lightly bread it with whole wheat bread crumbs, then sauté in a little olive oil.

7. Make fruit fun. Try serving it with a dip made with lowfat strawberry or raspberry Greek yogurt. Or make kebabs by threading pieces of fruit onto small wooden skewers, making sure to remove sharp points first. Another tempting treat: Layered fruit and nonfat yogurt in a parfait dish.

8. Avoid commercial baked goods like cakes, pies, and cookies. Instead, Massey suggests, try making your child a banana and strawberry frozen dessert by pureeing the fruits in the food processor until they have the consistency of ice cream. Or try a fruit smoothie: blend fresh fruit with plain yogurt or lowfat milk.

Raising healthy children isn't just about food. Experts also recommend that you:

9. Play outside with your child. Take the dog for a walk, play tag, or ride bikes together. The two of you will not only burn calories, but have fun, too.

10. Limit screen time. It's easier said than done, but if you find that it's all too easy to let the hours slip by when your child is playing the Wii or watching TV, decide how long she will be allowed to indulge in her electronics, tell her in advance, and set the timer. You might even set the timer five minutes early to give her a little warning.

Alison Massey, RD, reviewed this article.




"Early overeating leads to obesity in children." Diabetes Forecast. January 2013. Page accessed 22 June 2013. "A Parent's Guide to Childhood Obesity: A Road Map to Health." American Academy of Pediatrics. Page accessed 22 June 2013.