Healthy Habits, Healthy Kids

Remember those little boxes of Green Giant frozen broccoli with cheese sauce (of possibly unknown origin) that were a big hit in the 70’s and 80’s?  You might or might not have eaten that form of “vegetable” as a child.  You might have liked it, or you might have run kicking and screaming at the very first sight of the “cheese” packet.


You wouldn’t dare serve those to your children today, would you?


Probably not.


Parents today favor fresh, locally grown produce.  Parents today watch cooking shows, reading cooking magazines, and stalk cooking blogs.  Parents today know more about children’s nutrition than generations before us.


Or do we?


1 in 6 American children is obese.  That’s worth repeating:  1 in 6.  According to the CDC, obesity rates in children have more than tripled since you ate that cheesy broccoli in 1979.


The consequences of childhood obesity can be life threatening:  Heart disease and Type 2 diabetes top the list of potential medical problems, but let’s not forget about sleep disturbance, sleep apnea, breathing problems, join and muscle pain, low self-esteem, and depression.


The good news is that you can make changes to ensure better health, and better eating habits, for your children.  Below are some tips to get you started:


Think small:  You might not serve your child questionable frozen vegetables, but chances are you’ve allowed him to eat a giant muffin from Starbucks.  In comparison to our childhood, portion sizes are huge right now.  When you think about it, even the size of our plates and bowls have grown over time.  Children are eating enormous snacks and supersized meals.  Look at your child’s fist…there’s your portion size.  Avoid allowing children to eat snacks right from the bag.  Premeasure and plan ahead.  The more consistent the portions, the more kids learn what their bodies need.


Teach self-regulation:  One of my children will eat everything on the plate, while the other can recognize feeling full.  Most kids fall into the eat what’s there category in the preschool and school age years.  The best way to teach self-regulation is to model self-regulation.  Eat at least one meal a day with your kids.  Talk about what it means to feel full.  The “clean plate club” of years past is a dated model when it comes to healthy eating.  Kids need variety, colorful fruits and vegetables, and the ability to stop when the tummy feels full.


Let them shop:  Yes, it’s much easier to grocery shop alone.  It’s also easier (and more cost effective) to show up with a specific list and stick to just those items.  Kids are more likely to try new things when they are allowed to make some choices.  Let them peruse the fruits and vegetables and decide what they want to try.  My very picky three year old recently requested that we all try cucumber and yellow peppers.  The cucumber was a hit, the peppers not so much.  The best news was that he picked them, and he tried them.  Give them options.  Another great strategy is letting each family member have one night (or morning) per week to plan the meal.


Let them help:  You know the scene:  It’s five minutes until dinnertime and you are racing through kitchen, just getting started.  We’ve all been there.  The last thing you want is help that requires close supervision.  Kids are more likely to eat healthy foods and try new things when they help prepare the meals.  Let them wash produce, stir the pasta, or tear the lettuce.  There are always small jobs that don’t require sharp objects.  Get your kids involved and watch them take pride in their work.


Schedule it:  If your kids are allowed to snack all day, they probably won’t be interested in that yummy chicken stir-fry come dinnertime.  As much as possible, stick to a meal schedule.  Breakfast, small snack, lunch, small snack, dinner…it’s easy once you get into the habit.  Remember, kids often confuse boredom and thirst with hunger.  Offer plenty of water and changes of activities before sneaking in an extra snack.  Extra tip:  When my kids have had plenty to eat but still claim hunger they are allowed to snack on snap peas to their heart’s content.  Extra veggies are always a win.


Limit the drinks:  I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again:  Juice is not the enemy.  Straight juice all day long might be the enemy, but 4-5 oz. of juice cut with ice and water once a day is not the enemy.  Children need water.  Children need milk.  Children enjoy a little bit of juice.  Children DON’T need soda, Vitamin water, or energy drinks of any kind.  Too many complaints about the boring nature of water?  Throw a strawberry slice in the glass.  Kids today consume excessive calories from oversized sodas, Gatorade, and Vitamin water.  Stick to the basics…they will thank you later.


Schedule screen time:  I do love schedules…  When kids know what to expect, they don’t have to guess and beg for more.  Stick to a TV time and game time schedule.  Be involved.  Know what they are watching and process the shows with them.  Know what they are playing and how it affects their moods (excessive game time can and will affect behavior.  Be aware).


Prioritize sleep:  Insufficient sleep leads to stress, exhaustion, and weight gain.  Your children need a consistent bedtime routine…and so do you.


Treats are treats:  Ice cream every day?  No way!  Desserts should be small and saved for special occasions.  Yes, my kids enjoy a sweet treat after dinner sometimes.  But dried fruit is just as much of a hit as two gummy bears.  Keep it healthy and save the candy and ice cream for special occasions.


Get out and play:  The best thing about being a kid is that exercise is really just having fun.  Yes, some kids are homebodies (I have one of those) and require some convincing, but it’s so very worth it.  Kids should get at least 60 minutes of physical activity per day, according to the AAP.  Swinging, sliding, tag, jumping rope…these are just a few fun activities that count as exercise.  Walk often, take family bike rides, or go on nature hunts around your town.  And when the weather turns cold?  Hula hooping, obstacle courses, yoga, and somersaulting will keep their bodies moving.  Get creative and make it fun!


Above all, model healthy choices.  Drink your water, eat your vegetables, and get your exercise.


What healthy choices will you make this week?




About Katie

Katie Hurley is a Child, Adolescent, and Family Psychotherapist and Parenting Expert in Los Angeles, CA. She works in private practice in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, writes for PBS Parents, Washington Post Parents, and the Huffington Post. She is the author of "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World" (Tarcher/Penguin, 2015) and "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" (Penguin Random House, 2018)


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