It starts with a proper lunch, says Kathleen Pace, DDS, an assistant professor at Texas A&M University Baylor College of Dentistry, who shares her advice on encouraging smile-friendly habits in children as they start school.
School lunches have taken center stage in the interest of maintaining children's overall health, says Pace, yet dental health has faded into the background in the face of consequences such as obesity that stem from unhealthy school lunches.
"Dental cavities are a prevalent disease in our childhood population," says Pace, adding that natural foods are lower in sugar and therefore less damaging to teeth.
Instead of sugary snacks try fruits and dairy
Fruit is not only full of nutrients necessary for growth, says Pace, who recommends fruits with peels to satisfy a child's sweet tooth without risk to their dental health.
For preventing tooth decay, she recommends calcium-rich dairy products such as cheese and milk that help protect tooth enamel.
A package of string cheese, she says, could even substitute for dessert despite the lack of sugar, yet convincing the child to take on the habit of healthy meals, snacks and desserts starts at home, according to Pace.
"Parents need to serve these foods at home so their children will imitate those eating habits when they are elsewhere," she says.
Good dental health starts with a balanced diet that includes whole grains and protein in addition to fruits, vegetables and dairy products.
Pay attention to the texture of your child's food
"In general, any food that is sticky, crunchy or has sugar can promote cavities," says Pace.
Chewy candy sticks to the teeth for long periods, allowing the sugar extra contact with the teeth that could cause damage or decay.
Pace reminds us that sugar is in almost everything and recommends steering clear of cookies, sugar-sweetened beverages or candy.
It's time for parents to start checking the sugar content of packaged foods, for even foods that seem healthy – such as applesauce – are often laden with sugar.
Take part in children's dental care
Pace advises parents to be active during teeth cleaning rituals, morning and night, and to teach them correct brushing techniques by example.
"Children love to imitate, so let them watch you brush your teeth and floss. Or even better, do it with them," she says.
"Really try to have your kids brush their teeth after breakfast."
To put some fun in tooth brushing – which is often portrayed in children's media as an unpopular ritual, Pace recommends playing music or singing one of your child's favorite songs.
Children who have fun with brushing could be more likely to form the habit for life, she says.