As a parent, you want your children to grow up with healthy minds and bodies, so you probably sometimes worry about their eating habits. Maybe you are concerned that your child is in danger of becoming one of the nearly 33 percent of U.S. kids who are overweight or obese. Maybe you have an extremely picky eater, who won’t try new foods.
Getting kids to eat healthier is a challenge, but teaching them good nutrition habits will provide a lifetime of benefits. Following are some steps to get your family on track to a healthier lifestyle.
Be a positive role model. Kids learn by example, so it’s important that every member of the family agrees to eat healthier and be more physically active. If you reach for a soda and candy bar for a snack, you can bet your kids aren’t going to be happy with fruit.
Remember, you are in charge. You buy the food and prepare the meals. Keep plenty of nutritious foods in the house, and avoid stocking chips, candy, cookies, soda and other high-calorie, low-nutrient snacks. Kids will eat what is available; if the junk isn’t there, they can’t eat it.
Make it easy for them by having fresh fruit available on the counter or fridge, cut up veggies and put them at eye level in the refrigerator, and stock some whole grain granola bars, crackers and cereals. Be cautious of liquids — sometimes we forget about how many calories are in drinks. Sugar-free beverages aren’t a great option for kids; instead, stick with milk, water flavored with cut-up fruit, or limited amounts of 100 percent fruit juice.
Be the boss. You get to decide when meals and snacks are served and what foods will be offered. You can control the cooking methods, for example baking French fries, instead of deep-frying. Refuse to be a short-order cook; make one meal for the whole family. Don’t fall into the “kid food” trap. From the time children can eat table foods, they should be eating the same food as the rest of the family, not chicken nuggets, macaroni and cheese, hot dogs or other typical kid foods. You can control the portion sizes. Make just enough for the family and offer seconds of salad, vegetables or fruit only. Insist on eating together at the table without distractions as often as possible.
Encourage a nutritious breakfast. Kids who eat breakfast do better in school and have an easier time maintaining a healthy weight. There are lots of options besides cereal: how about a smoothie, a peanut butter and banana sandwich, or hard boiled eggs?
Provide positive incentives but never use food as a reward, punishment or to soothe hurt feelings. Encourage kids to try new foods but don’t force them to eat or to clean their plates. If you consistently offer new foods, they will eventually be curious enough to try them.
Page 2 of 2 - Give them choices. Kids have food dislikes, too, so give them the option to choose which vegetable they want for dinner or what they like for snack. You can provide a variety of healthy foods from which to choose.
Get them involved in preparing meals and snacks. Kids are much more likely to try a new food if they have helped prepare it. Let them help with menu planning, grocery lists, label reading and simple cooking. The more involved they are, the more likely they are to make good choices with food. Kids who don’t learn to cook will have to rely on processed foods and restaurants the rest of their lives.
Limit screen time. Television, video games, computer time and even phone use should be limited to no more than two hours a day. Get the TV and computer out of the kids’ bedrooms. Seventy percent of kids ages 8-18 have a TV in their bedroom. Studies show that kids with TVs in their bedrooms are more likely to be obese, have more belly fat, and have a higher risk of heart disease and diabetes. Plus, TVs contribute to sleep disturbances and less family time, both of which are associated with heavier kids.
Plan regular, fun activities for the family. Go for a walk in the evenings, plan a hike for the weekend, play outdoor games or ride bikes. Give the kids chores to do, like carrying laundry upstairs, gardening or washing the cars. Set a good example by taking stairs whenever you can and parking farther away from stores.
Set limits, but don’t deprive. Forbidding junk foods, sweets or soda just makes them seem more desirable. Let them know they can have these foods once in awhile, but they are special treats.
How much should kids eat? Ideally, school-age kids should have 2 cups of fruit, 2 cups of vegetables, 4 to 6 ounces of protein, 6 servings of whole grains, and 2 cups of low-fat milk daily. It’s not uncommon for kids to eat more than that one day and little the next, but it generally balances out.
Anita Marlay, R.D., L.D., is a dietitian in the cardiac rehab department at Lake Regional Health System in Osage Beach, Mo.