From TV ads to eye-level store displays, kids get the message to buy and eat high-fat, sugar, processed foods -- not exactly the building blocks of good nutrition.
And although government, consumer groups and the food and TV industries have begun looking at ways to channel more nutrition information to kids, most experts agree parents are still the food gatekeepers -- at home, at stores, in restaurants.
Good -- or poor -- nutrition and eating habits form early, they say. Lifetime habits are set by age 12. And parents play a big role in establishing good habits.
Letting kids help prepare the food, experts say, raises their curiosity about food generally and makes them more willing to eat what they prepare.
"Children love breaking eggs," says Mollie Katzen, who spent a year in a preschool researching "Pretend Soup and Other Real Recipes" (Tricycle Press, $14.95). "Sticking a spatula under French toast, turning it. They love it."
But, this means, the experts say, parents should be cooking more at home.
Dr. Isabel Contento, professor and nutrition education program coordinator at Teachers College, Columbia University, thinks cooking is a lost art. More and more, she says, people don't grow up watching their mothers cook and thus think home cooking is time-consuming.
"A lot is perception," she says, "that somehow it takes a long time to cook healthful meals. It doesn't." She estimates a good meal takes about 30 minutes to prepare -- less time than dining or ordering out.
Another help for kids is at the supermarket, where parents can guide choices then give kids more leeway in food-buying decisions, experts say.
For example, one mother lets her children choose the breakfast cereal -- as long as sugar is not the first ingredient. This make youngsters feel grown-up and teaches them to read labels at an early age.
But don't stop with labels, says Arthur Pober, vice president of the Children's Advertising Review Unit, Council of Better Business Bureaus.
Teach kids to analyze commercial messages, he says in Food Insight, a publication of the nonprofit International Food Information Council.
Help kid understand that advertising gives them some, but not ** all, of the information they need to make buying decisions, he says. Start with children as young as 4.
Ms. Katzen has other suggestions:
* In the kitchen, get kids to counter level -- either by creating a counter at their level or putting them on a stool.
* Show them how to use kitchen tools -- age-appropriate and with adult supervision.
* Set up areas where they can work, mess and all.
Building blocks of eating
Here are some tips from dietitians, nutritionists, psychologists and parents:
* Parents can best teach good eating habits by setting a good example.
* If you don't want your children to eat junk food, don't buy it.
* Most children need more calories and nutrients than adults, but may have less capacity for food. Have several small meals a day, or make nutritious between-meal snacks available.
* Don't use food as reward or punishment.
* Overweight children usually need more exercise, not less food.
* Children who help in the kitchen are more likely to try new foods and eat a wider variety of foods.
* If parents have a real concern about school food, they should go to school and try the food themselves.
* Peer pressure influences kids' attitudes toward food. They may choose specific foods or talk about foods in a negative manner just to fit in with their friends.
* Foods don't always have to be eaten at a specific time of day. A pizza or taco can be part of a nutritious breakfast. A bowl of cereal and low-fat milk is a good snack.
Kids in the kitchen
Let them measure, mix and chop.
Urge them to try a bite a day of something new.
Help them make good food choices at the store.
Cook more meals at home.
Leave nutritious leftovers they can warm up themselves.
Kids can help get meals on the table. Let them:
* Mix prepackaged salad greens, dressing and croutons in a large bowl.
* Make simple recipes from children's cookbooks with little adult supervision.
* Top Boboli pizzas with preshredded cheese and vegetables.
* Assemble sandwiches.
* Stir or saute vegetables or meat on the stove (for older kids).
* Assemble a fruit salad.
* Put condiments in bowls for tacos or salads.