This September we are focusing on healthy eating for kids during Childhood Obesity Awareness Month. Knowing that obesity correlates with increased risk of disease, mental health conditions including depression, higher risk of bullying, poorer performance in school and greater medical costs for life, it’s no wonder parents are concerned.
Continued exposure to high-calorie, shelf-stable processed food and beverages continues to be a main player in childhood obesity. Think breakfast pastries, sugar-sweetened granola bars and cereals, highly processed snack chips and sports drinks — they’re everywhere.
These days, most people understand what healthy food looks like — food that comes from the farm, not the factory — so why does it continue to be so difficult to get healthy foods to our plates?
Barriers to healthy eating for kids
- Lack of skills when it comes to meal planning, grocery shopping and cooking
- Lack of time due to our busy lifestyles
- Easy access to convenient, cheap food options like fast food
- Cultural norms that aren’t changing fast enough
- Our dependence on processed food
So, what do we do? We can start focusing on the right type of solutions
- Share responsibility. It is the responsibility of all family members to focus on food. It’s not just about cooking. There are invisible tasks of feeding a family that come far before heating the oven, like deciding what to eat that meets everyone’s needs and likes/dislikes, getting to the grocery, pre-chopping veggies, defrosting meat and more. It is a constant cycle that historically has been put on mom’s shoulders. Delegate. Have kids pick menus, utilize online shopping options, grab pre-made meals at your grocery hot bar, have dad pack lunches, teach kids how to heat the oven and defrost meat, etc.
- Write out your meals for the week. This doesn’t mean you have to make from-scratch meals daily; it just helps you organize your food for the week. If you plan to eat out, write it down so you can plan your takeout wisely. Instead of hitting a fast-food joint, you may look at your calendar and see that you will be near a grocery hot bar that evening. You can pick up soup and salad on the way home.
- If packing lunch, pack at night. Make sure to involve your child so he or she can take over this chore as soon as possible. Make sure you have all your packing supplies — insulated lunch box, freezer packs and storage containers — handy in a place where kids can reach. Keep at least two freezer packs on hand for each kid in case one doesn’t make it back in the freezer in time for the next day.
- Keep snacks in a convenient location for kids to grab when they get home. In the pantry, keep healthier options like dried fruit (raisins), unsweetened applesauce, whole-wheat crackers and peanut butter. And in the fridge, keep fruit; veggies and dips like hummus; string cheese; and yogurt.
- Limit options with breakfast. “What would you like for breakfast?” is a huge time waster. Stick to the same meal daily or give only a couple options. Yogurt, smoothies, unsweetened cereals or fruit and peanut butter all make easy, no-heat breakfast options.
- Try to eat together. However, that doesn’t mean it has to happen every night and it doesn’t mean it has to happen at night at all. Maybe breakfast is your time to sit down with each other. Maybe Sunday dinner is all that you can make happen. That’s OK, but make it happen!
- Utilize technology to keep you engaged with feeding your family. Instagram has no shortage of videos that will entice you to try new things. Online meal planning apps like eMeals can help remove the burden of coming up with ideas. And, of course, online grocery shopping solutions are booming. Use them!
Norton Children’s Medical Associates
Additional tips for helping kids choose healthy
- Lead by example — talk about how yummy you find a variety of foods.
- Don’t cook down to your kids: Some nights cater to meals you know the kids like (ex. French toast). Others, make what you want!
- Always serve a new dish with familiar sides, for example, shrimp and rice with grapes and a cheese stick.
- Follow this rule to help expand your child’s palate: A child has to try everything, but then can choose if he or she would like to eat more. Using this rule should start when the child is about 2½ years old. This will continue to expand a child’s palate without a fight. As they age, you can start to demand more bites of items before they are excused from the table.
- Kids cannot eat off-menu, but they can have more of the familiar foods. So, they would be able to have more grapes, but they can’t have peanut butter crackers.
- Never use food as a reward or a punishment. You can use fun food experiences, like a family outing for ice cream.
- Don’t involve emotion. Don’t let it hurt your feelings. Cook for you, not them!
- Serve items you want them to eat more of, family style. Example: Put the bowl of grapes in the middle of the table. They’ll eat more.
Lastly, be an advocate for your child
People are more oblivious to this subject than you would think. The severity is not understood and the connections between the behaviors and the results are not realized. “It’s just a cookie.” Not if you’re the third person to give that child a treat that day. You have to advocate on behalf of your children — don’t be afraid to say something. Don’t judge, just educate and provide suggestions.
Erin Wiedmar, M.Ed., RDN, L.D., CDE, is aclinical nutritionist with Norton Healthcare.