But now, 13 years after her oldest daughter was born, Schwartz has noticed a change. First Lady Michelle Obama recently launched a campaign against childhood obesity. Policymakers have begun to see nutrition as a vital issue, and parents seem to be more concerned about what their children eat.
Based on her experience as a professional and as a mom, Schwartz offered some tips for improving children's eating habits.
Know ModerationPeople often figure that everything in moderation is OK.
"If you truly are only having it in moderation, it's OK," Schwartz said. "But the problem is that people use that as an excuse to have a little bit of a lot of bad food, which ends up not being in moderation at all."
To learn what moderation really means, Schwartz recommends going to mypyramid.gov, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's food pyramid website, and looking up "discretionary calories." The website has a chart that lists how many discretionary calories — think empty calories that don't add nutritional value to your diet — children should have, by sex, age and level of physical activity.
"What people will be shocked to learn is how few you are really supposed to have a day," Schwartz said.
For most people, it's about 200 calories a day.
When you find out the number, figure out how that translates to food: What can you eat for 200 calories?
Treat Is As A Family EffortIf you want to make a change to your children's eating habits, it needs to be a whole family effort.
"You need to model the behavior," Schwartz said. "You can't be sneaking off and eating bags of potato chips after the kids go to bed."
Both parents need to be on board. It's important not to single out one child, which can lead to problems.
And if there are other adults who regularly care for the children, like a baby sitter or grandparents, they need to be on board, too.
Emphasize Health, Not WeightSchwartz cringes when she hears parents say their child eats junk food constantly, but it's OK, they're skinny. Just because the negative effects of unhealthy food aren't visible doesn't mean they're not there.
"This is not about how much your child weighs," she said. "It's about the quality of your child's diet."
Schwartz has treated children with eating disorders and is mindful of how they interpret messages about food. Emphasizing the importance of being healthy and having energy is key, as is making sure the effort does not single out one child.
"It's all about nutrition, it's all about health," Schwartz said. "And that's why it has to apply to all the children in the family."
Just Don't Start Eating Junk Food"If there's something you don't want your child eating, keep it out of the house," Schwartz said. Otherwise, you're setting yourself up for a fight about what they can eat.
Instead of junk food, keep healthy snacks like fresh fruit, cheese, yogurt or crackers, food you don't mind your child having as a snack. That way, you can give your child a choice. And make sure the choices are between healthy items, not between a cookie or an apple. "Then you're setting yourself up for failure," Schwartz said.
Have A Family TalkWith the whole family there, explain what's happening: We've been thinking about our eating habits. They're not as good as they could be. Then explain how your family will do things from now on.
Then, if there are foods you don't want your kids eating, stop buying them. Figure out what desserts your family loves and figure out a way to buy and serve them in a way you can have a moderate amount of them.
Give kids choices. When Schwartz's family eats out, her children can choose between having the French fries that come with a meal or a bowl of ice cream after. They know it's one or the other, not both.
For older children, explain the concept of discretionary calories and let them think about how to use them, just as they might decide how to spend a certain amount of money.