Kids are growing up—and packing on the pounds.
Here, Tamalisa Carlson, MPH, RD, clinical dietitian and health educator at Marshall Medical Center, weighs in.
1. SET THE EXAMPLE
“Early on, children learn behaviors and attitudes about food and health from their parents,” Carlson says. “Even without realizing it a parent may [invite] a child to ignore their own hunger cues by encouraging them to finish a bottle or the food on their plate.” So, be a good role model (eat well and exercise) and avoid mindless grazing.
2. CHANGE THE CONVERSATION
“Moving” sounds more appealing than “exercising” to fitness-adverse kids. Find fresh ways to boost family fitness without labeling it. Plan an after-dinner stroll and forage for blackberries to top off frozen Greek yogurt for dessert, or put your kids’ video-game obsession (and the Wii) to good use and join them in dancing off dinner with the help of games like Just Dance.
3. GET COOKIN‘
If you want your little sugar fiends to favor healthier fare, enlist their help in preparing it. Start with lunch. From ingredients you provide (with at least one healthier version of something they love in the mix), put them “in charge” of packing. But, adds Carlson, “Make sure your child gets a variety of whole grains, fruit, veggies and lean protein choices to keep them fueled for the day while avoiding the temptation to reach for convenience snacks.” Graduate to bigger meals.
If the greens scene at your place is not exactly flourishing, invest in a few containers and watch your little ones cultivate an interest in homegrown goodness—and a better relationship with food from the ground up. Arrange visits to local farms and U-pick orchards and kick up the creativity quotient at the store by playing “Name That Fruit” (you purchase, they prepare) and at home with “Veggie Iron Chef”—the most creative recipe wins.
5. SCHEDULE SNACKS
“If kids are allowed to free graze and fill up on processed snacks and juice during the day, they will be too full and have little desire to try healthful choices at mealtimes,” says Carlson, adding that a meal and snack schedule allows parents to control food choices and amount. “Chances are they will be more willing to try new foods when they don’t compete with go-to snacks.”
6. AVOID LABELING
Tagging foods as good or bad “can make poor choices even more attractive by eliciting a desire for the forbidden,” Carlson warns. But, when tasting new foods is presented as an “adventure,” kids are more apt to explore other options, especially when taste, color, texture and variety are touted.
7. SKIP THE DRIVE-THRU
“While family meals around the table are considered the cornerstone of good health, fast food has become a way of life for many busy families,” Carlson admits. With the end goal to bypass the drive-thru for good, start with compromise: Fast food twice a month, with Mom deciding the where and what. Schedule these visits in advance and scout the best options with the healthiest meal plans. Seek out kid-sized portions and nutritious substitutions, and avoid sodas (bring full water bottles with H2O or zero-calorie fruit water from home).
GET CREATIVE. Part of the fun of being a kid is eating like one, but you can do better with these reimagined munchies:
Peanut Butter & Fresh Fruit Roll-Ups: Spread natural peanut butter on whole-grain flatbread. Top with slices of fresh fruit (apples or bananas work well). Roll up and eat.
Berry Good Parfait: In a pretty, translucent cup, alternate layers of berries and yogurt. Top with granola as desired.
Mini Pizzas: Smear marinara sauce on halved, whole-grain English muffins. Sprinkle lightly with low-fat mozzarella cheese. Decorate with freshly cut or grilled veggies. Bake until cheese melts. A "make your own" pizza station setup kicks up the fun factor.
GET INVOLVED. Join PTA organizations to lobby for healthy school meals and snacks. Involve kids in promoting a healthier environment by putting them on “snack duty”; have them pack cut carrots, wrap up slices of turkey or light cheese with greens in a whole-grain tortilla, and distribute the goods.
GET A HOLIDAY HEAD START. Approach the season’s feasting with a plan. Experiment with low-fat versions of family faves in advance, allowing kids some treats, but not at the expense of other nutritious food. And arrange for “give back” fitness. Join a community Turkey Trot, so not only will everyone feel good, they’ll do good too.