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Yuck! Broccoli again?!

For the most part, nutrition science is lost on the preschool crowd. They base their food choices strictly on appearance, texture, taste, familiarity—and whether they’re in the mood to play mind games with Mom or Dad.

Nevertheless, research shows that, to a large extent, the eating habits we develop as children follow us for a lifetime. How can parents help ensure that those habits are healthy ones? These tips will help you encourage your children to eat well—without their knowing that’s what you’re up to.

1. Set a good example. A child who sees his or her parents enjoying fruits, vegetables and a variety of other healthful foods prepared in many different ways is more likely to accept those foods. By the same token, a child who watches his or her parents reach for potato chips and ice cream will want to do the same.

2. Don’t start your own chapter of the clean-plate club. When a child is full, he or she will stop eating. If parents insist that a plate be left clean, a child learns to ignore the signals his or her body is sending. That can lead to overeating and, eventually, obesity.

3. Downplay dessert. If your children are still very young, don’t get in the dessert habit. Instead, make it a family custom to eat fruit at the end of a meal. If you have older children who are used to dessert, stop offering it automatically. When children ask for something sweet, offer them fruit, yogurt or a low-fat treat like animal crackers or Fig Newtons. Never use dessert as a reward—not even for eating all the vegetables on a plate.

4. Don’t praise or criticize what your child chooses to eat. Food should be a neutral area—not attached to any emotions (either positive or negative) or to your child’s self-esteem. In fact, the best thing parents can do is stay out of a child’s meal once it’s prepared and on the table. In one recent study, researchers found that children who were left to make their own food choices ate better over the course of a week than did children whose parents tried to encourage or discourage certain choices. At any given meal, you’ve done your job if you present a variety of good foods, at least some of which you know your child will eat.

5. Don’t use food to comfort a child. It’s tempting to offer a cookie to distract a crying child, but doing so will likely encourage him or her to associate food with comfort. Instead, offer to play a favorite game or read a special book.