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Science has a curious way of turning long-held assumptions into subjects for reevaluation. For example, who knew that letting kids as young as two years-old serve themselves meals was a good idea? Despite the inevitable messes that would come along with such a proposition, studies from the US Department of Agriculture and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics suggest that letting kids portion out their food helps prevent overeating and encourages exploring new tastes.

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According to research from the Child Development Laboratory at the University of Illinois, the majority of parents dish up the plates for their children. Care centers also tend to control portions, and experts believe this prevents kids from developing sensible eating habits during preschool and kindergarten. When fed in a “family style” setting where youngsters are allowed to fend for themselves, they not only learn how to satiate their hunger in a responsible manner, but also to handle utensils that encourage hand-eye coordination.

Of course, letting tiny tummies dictate their dinners comes with a set of challenges. Parents still need to vet what goes on the table in the first place, and in instances where fresh food is not available or too expensive, a balanced diet is difficult to achieve. Scheduling a time where everyone can gather and supervise a meal together can also be a colossal task, and food insecurity encourage binging. Adults may also have to shift their behavior, taking less for themselves at a sitting to set the example that you can always go back for another helping. Considering kids need to try a new food 12-15 times before they get a palate for them, some edible introductions could take a bit of patience.

Even with the unpleasant prospect of messy meals and whining, guidance at an early age can help prevent diabetes, obesity, and heart disease over a lifetime. By teaching children self-control, they will be able to moderate the types and amounts of food they eat and wisely fuel their bodies for years to come.

via The Salt