With obesity posing a huge threat to children everywhere, kids' nutrition and exercise are becoming a top priority for families. And a healthier kid is a happier kid.
Nutritional research shows that eating habits developed during childhood set the stage for longterm patterns. Parents can positively affect a child’s relationship with food years down the road. Kids also reap whole-life benefits of more energy, better health, and a more stable mood.
I spoke to Sara Folta, Ph.D., a nutrition expert from Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, who helped develop "Shape-Up Somerville," a model for First Lady Michelle Obama’s nationwide initiative to overcome childhood obesity, “Let’s Move.”
1. Be a Great Role Model
The very best thing a parent can do is be a positive role model. Studies show that what parents eat has a direct effect on what their children eat. Having children can motivate you to make healthier food choices for yourself--and by extension for the whole family. And by getting into the habit at home, kids will be more likely to make better choices for themselves when outside the home.
2. Make Wellness a Team Effort
Instead of singling out your children, focus instead on how the whole family can participate in crafting healthy habits. Hold family meetings to discuss how each person can play his or her part in creating a healthier living environment. For example, join together to come up with a menu of healthful meals that all can enjoy--and be sure to emphasize that everyone is involved and supported in the team effort.
3. Give Children Choices
A helpful rule of thumb: Parents determine the “what” and “when” of eating and children determine the “if” and “how much.” In other words, while it is the parents’ responsibility to provide nutritious foods and help to set a routine of regular meals and snacks, children should decide if they are hungry and when they are finished eating. This way, they learn to listen to their bodies and not resist their natural cues.
4. Forget About Forbidden Foods
The “forbidden food mentality” is detrimental to the long-term development of a healthy relationship with food. Instead of establishing certain foods as “forbidden” or “bad,” try to emphasize to your kids the positive qualities of fresh fruits and vegetables. For example, a child will become much more excited about eating vegetables if parents explain that vegetables have the special nutrients to make him or her grow big enough to do “grown-up” things. Folta explains to her four-year-old daughter, who loves pretending to drive, that vegetables will make her legs grow long enough to one day reach the gas and brake pedals.
5. Celebrate Small Steps
Long-term nutritional progress is best achieved through small adjustments and gradual changes. Instead of doing a massive overhaul of your snack cabinet, start by making small substitutions. When food shopping, purchase fresh fruit in season and offer that to your kids as an after-school snack instead of the usual potato chips. Try going vegetarian for one meal a week, or indulge in fast food one less time per week. Celebrate “the fruit or veggie of the week” with coloring, drawing, games, and poems about that food.
6. Cook Together
Children get a strong sense of pride from creation. Involve them in the process of cooking. Children as young as a few years old can participate, and cooking together can be a lot of fun for the whole family. Through cooking, children (and parents) become naturally more mindful about eating and enjoy food more. Show your toddler how to cut a banana with a plastic fork, let your son or daughter “help” you in the kitchen. There is evidence to support that those children who are more involved in the creative process of cooking have healthier attitudes toward food and make better eating choices.
7. Make Family Meals a Joyful Priority
Research shows that children of families who take the time to sit down and eat together are not only less likely to suffer from obesity but also perform better in school and are less likely to use drugs and alcohol. While there are challenges to finding time in the stress of the daily grind to cook and eat as a family, remember that there is rich progress in small changes. Designate at least one night a week as “family dinner night.” Decide together on meals that everyone can enjoy, and make eating a relaxing, bonding experience. Teach your children to engage mindfully in the experience of eating by asking them about the different flavors and beautiful colors of the food. Before eating, express gratitude for each other and the healthful and delicious meal you will share together.
8. Get Active
While nutritional choices are key to preventing obesity in children, increasingly sedentary lifestyles also contribute to the problem. Encourage your children to play outside, and by all means play with them. This is a great way for the whole family to get more physical exercise. When you add sports and exercise to your child’s daily routine, you pave the way for lifelong fitness. Plan weekend family outings such as hikes or soccer games at the local park.
9. Cut Down on Soda and Juices
Many children consume excessive calories from sugary beverages. Try to cut down on soda and encourage your children to drink water instead. Sugary juices are often marketed towards children but they are heavily concentrated and packed with calories - try watering them down. As you reduce the amount of sugary beverages you and your kids intake, they will lose appeal.
10. Use Non-Food Rewards
Offering kids candy, cookies, or pizza for achievements or good behavior connects success with food. Instead, when you want to reward kids, it’s better to give hugs and attention, or some special time together, rather than sugary high calorie treats.
11. Be a Community Player
The most effective efforts in ending childhood obesity have taken place on a community level. PTA meetings and parent-teacher conferences can serve as a forum for you to give voice to the possibility for healthy changes. Make your wishes and needs known. Successful community-wide efforts have included such activities as walk-to-school days, more nutritious school lunches, and healthier kids’ menu choices at restaurants. Remember that you can play an integral role in your community to help build a happier and healthier future for your children.