Childhood obesity has been in the news this week – even more so than before – in part because of a controversial series of ads run in Georgia. These ads feature overweight kids who talk frankly about being teased and ostracized because of their weight. No matter how you feel about the ads, the pain that these kids suffer is clear. No one wants kids to have to go through that kind of torment.
There’s plenty of debate about how to solve the childhood obesity epidemic, and no consensus on solutions (Eat fewer calories? Get more exercise? Both? Something else entirely?). But no matter how the problem gets addressed, it has to start at home. Therefore we humbly submit this list of things to do in your home to make sure your kids stay healthy without adding on pounds of fat. Let’s call these the “Top 5 Tips to Prevent Childhood Obesity.”
Shop with them: Take them with you to the store or the farmer’s market or the co-op (yes, we know, it’s a pain. Bring distractions if necessary). Let them see you evaluate options and make healthy choices. Help them make choices of their own (The Fuji apples or the Granny Smith apples? The red potatoes or the yellow potatoes?).
Cook with them: Yes, it’s messier this way, but it’s worth it if they have an investment in the food they are making and they have an incentive to eat it. There are countless jobs for kids to do in the kitchen. They can make granola. They can tear lettuce for salad and put it in the salad spinner. They can shake chicken with breadcrumbs in a bag to bread it. They can chop vegetables, within reason and with good guidance. Parents – this is your free labor force – why don’t you use it? The more they get excited about cooking, the more likely they are to choose healthier (not processed) food and to think carefully about the ingredients that are in each food.
Don’t punish or reward with food: You choose what foods they eat; they choose how much they are hungry for. Whether they eat a huge meal or a tiny meal, let it go. Kids have a strong sense of how hungry they are at any given time; we shouldn’t ruin that sense by insisting that they eat a certain amount at a certain time. We know some kids who are big breakfast eaters and just eat a tiny dinner; we know others who are breakfast pickers but will wolf down any and all dinner options. Know your kid. Respect his or her eating patterns. Don’t reward them with food, and don’t punish them for not eating as much as you think they should.
Skip the kids’ packaging: Sure, it’s tempting and easy to buy those small packs of yogurt or kiddie crackers. But what you’re getting with the kids’ version of any given product is probably more sugar and/or refined or processed ingredients. Do they like yogurt? Buy a big tub of plain yogurt and flavor it yourself. Do they love crackers? They can eat grownup crackers. Do they love sandwiches? You don’t have to buy special squishy white bread for them.
Skip the juice: This is a tough one, especially considering that most of us grew up drinking juice ourselves. But food is different now, as are activity levels and serving sizes. Juice manufacturers will try to sell you on all of the vitamins your kids are getting. But what they’re primarily getting is all of the sugar from fruit and none of the fiber. Want them to get those vitamins? Serve fruit. And pass out water or milk for drinking with meals.
We have one last pointer that doesn’t have to do with food specifically: Turn off the TV. Yes, we know kids love TV and it’s a big help to Mom and Dad sometimes. But when the TV stays on and on for hours it gets destructive. First, your kids are exposed to countless crummy commercials. And second, it puts them in couch potato mode, where it becomes impossible to get up. So pick out a show that they want to watch, and then turn it off when it’s over (the DVR is a big help with this). Or pick a movie that everyone wants to watch and watch it together. It’s the same theory that dieters talk about with “intentional eating” only this is “intentional TV watching.” Decide what you’re going to watch, watch it, and then move on to the next thing – preferably something outside.
Here’s to a happy and healthy 2011!