Sometimes it feels like you just can’t win when it comes to kids and food. If you’re not vigilant about what your child eats, she could join the 1 in 3 American children at risk for obesity and diabetes. But if you focus too much on food, you could give her a complex or, worse, an eating disorder.
To try to sort out the best parent policy, Babble asked some experts for tips on how you can help your kids with the issues of weight, health, and body image.
Look at your own diet.
If you munch chips all day and call your morning latte “breakfast,” don’t expect your child to develop healthy eating habits. “Your child is looking at you and thinking, ‘What do I do?’” says Christine Wood, a pediatrician based in Encinatas, CA. “If you have a mom who’s always on a diet or who says ‘you can never eat this or that,’ that’s too much pressure for a kid. It’s important to teach them balance.”
Make eating fun.
Provide a wide variety of healthy foods in your home. “The more choices you have of a certain type of food, the more kids will eat it,” says Lisa Young, an adjunct professor at NYU and author of The Portion Teller Plan. Make a colorful plate of sliced red peppers, cucumber spears, and carrot sticks, and encourage your child to try them all. Just because she doesn’t care for broccoli doesn’t mean she won’t go for snap peas.
Discourage picky eating.
“One risk factor for obesity is a picky eater,” says Marlene Schwartz, deputy director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University. It’s one thing if your kid will only eat broccoli and brown rice, but usually a picky eater’s predilection is for mac-n-cheese and chicken fingers. That’s when catering to their tastes can lead to trouble. “This is the only time in history that we’ve had the luxury of catering to every family member’s tastes,” says Schwarz, who instead advises that you make one meal for the whole family. “Most of the time, if children are picky, they’re not hungry enough.”
Put weight in perspective.
People come in many shapes and sizes – and that goes for children, too. “I see a lot of kids, and most of the time it’s the mothers who are so used to dieting that they’re completely out of sync with what normal eating is like,” says Wood. Consult with your pediatrician and ask her to chart your child’s weight according to her growth. “Kids can go through a chunky stage,” says Melissa Halas-Liang, a registered dietician based in Los Angeles. “Look at your family history – maybe you or your spouse went through a growth spurt in the fourth or fifth grade, so you know that’s coming. Your child’s weight gain might simply be a normal growth pattern.”
Change your language.
Use phrases that include the words “health,” “activity,” and “lifestyle” instead of “diet,” “weight,” or “exercise.” Don’t tell your kids that certain foods are “bad,” because “when they inevitably eat that food, they’re going to think, ‘I am a bad person,’” says Wood. That said, Schwartz feels “worthless” is a fair way to describe foods that don’t provide nutrients. As your child reaches for a soft drink, you could remind her, “Maybe you should have some milk or juice instead. Sodas are worthless; they have no food value.”
Make healthy eating a family affair.
Direct conversations and guidelines for healthy eating toward all family members. “You can’t have one member of the family eating chocolate bars while another’s eating celery sticks,” says Young. And you’ve heard it 1,000 times before, but here it is again: make eating together a priority. “Eating dinner together as a family is associated with higher fruit and vegetable consumption,” says Halas-Liang. “If you work late, make Saturday and Sunday dinners a priority.” Hard as it may be, try to get your children used to adult food, which is often healthier and usually more varied than typical kids’ fare. It will save time, and force everyone to try new things – or at least get them used to seeing vegetables on their plates.
Set limits on screen time.
Every minute a child sits in front of the television, computer, or video game is a minute they are not moving. One Canadian study found that children who watch more than three hours of television a day are 50 percent more likely to be obese than kids who watch fewer than two hours. “When you turn media off, children naturally have to become a little active,” says Wood. She recommends one hour of screen time on the weekdays and two hours per day on the weekends.
Make fitness a blast
Los Angeles dietician Melissa Halas-Liang says it’s critical to get the whole family moving together to show kids that “we exercise because it’s fun and it’s good for our energy and our bodies.” She suggests going on nature hikes to look for insects, playing a baseball game whenever there’s a hit, the whole family runs the bases. Remember, your routine doesn’t have to be elaborate, just fun. “My daughters and I have dance parties every night,” says Halas-Ling. “We just put on music and bounce around the house.”
Get your child involved with her food
Ask your child to weigh-in on what’s for dinner, then have her help you make it. The less she feels “forced” to eat the good stuff, the less she’ll resist it. Make a list of all the healthful foods she likes and refer to it for meal ideas. If she’s old enough, split up the grocery list and have her help you do the shopping – it’ll take less time and she’ll learn how to read food labels so she knows how to pick items with the fewest added fats, sugars, and preservatives.