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Opinion Teaching our kids healthy eating must start early

The White House's announcement last month of a $1 billion public-private investment in early child-care programs, a priority of President Obama's, presents an opportunity to teach children healthy eating habits. Fortunately for policymakers at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, a model piece of legislation was passed last year by the other deliberative body in Washington: the D.C. Council.

In June, the council passed the Healthy Tots Act, which, in addition to raising the nutritional standards of food served in early child-care centers, offers eligible child-care centers grants for nutrition education, among other things. With the funding in place, there is an opportunity to start teaching healthy eating habits as children's eating patterns develop.

According to research, food preferences are formed in early childhood and affect an individual's eating habits for life. Starting early is important to give our children the best chance to live healthy and successful lives and turn the tide on our obesity epidemic.

The extent of the problem is startling. According to Let's Move, one in three children is overweight or obese. On any given day, 30 percent of all 2- and 3-year-olds don't eat a single vegetable; for those who do, the most commonly consumed vegetables were fried potatoes.

Having healthy food available is a critical first step. But teaching children to eat this food and enjoy it is another challenge. You can’t just put a piece of broccoli in front of a 3-year-old and expect her to dive in with gusto. But most early child-care teachers get almost no training on how to introduce new foods or how to teach children “tasting,” a skill that helps expand palates and break out of the pizza-pasta-nugget rut, or how to talk to children about hunger and satiety.

We've worked with hundreds of children, early child-care educators and families to get them excited about eating fruits and vegetables. In our experience, teachers are eager for training and support so they can give children a better start.

Fortunately, every early child-care classroom has time to teach these skills. Morning snack time, a ritual part of every program, is the perfect time to teach children healthy eating habits, not just put food on the table and expect children to know what to do.

We recently made carrot smoothies with children and teachers in seven early child-care centers in the District, Maryland and Virginia. The children, including those who claimed they didn’t like carrots, gulped them down, proud of what they had helped make. The teachers shared the enthusiasm and were eager for more ideas on what they could do in their classrooms.

With training and support, early child-care teachers in the District and elsewhere can play a pivotal role in shaping the eating patterns of our youngest children, setting them up for a lifetime of healthy eating and serving as a model for the rest of the country. They already play an important role in many other aspects of our children’s lives.

It is not just how much we eat but also what we eat that will turn the obesity tide and ensure our children grow up living healthy lives. Just as we think about teaching children letters or colors, we must teach them healthy eating skills.

The writer is founder of First Bites, a nonprofit that aims to encourage preschool-age children, teachers and families to eat more fruits and vegetables.

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The Post’s View: Getting children the nutrition they need

Paul Polman and Danielle Servitje: The global challenge of food security

Catherine Rampell: Big potato lobbies to join WIC food assistance program