Unfortunately, there is an apparent disconnect between American youth and proper nutrition. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the prevalence of obesity in a 2017 study was 18.5 percent and affected 13.7 million children and adolescents. On the other end of the spectrum, the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders reports that more than half of teenage girls and nearly one-third of teenage boys use unhealthy weight control behaviors such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting and taking laxatives.
Parents play a vital role in guiding kids to make healthy food choices and develop healthy relationships with food, exercise and their bodies. Here are ten simple tips for raising a nutrition-smart kid.
It is important to avoid giving foods the common labels of “good” and “bad.” While there are foods that provide more beneficial nutrition (i.e. whole grains, fruits, vegetables and lean protein) and should make up the majority of a healthy diet, identifying a food as “bad” may create a sense of shame or guilt when it is eaten. Instead of speaking negatively about food, parents should focus more on the benefits of the nutrient-dense foods and associate them with things kids care about, such as doing well in school or performing well in their sport. Instead of labeling food, talk about how lean proteins and whole grains provide strength and energy for sports, how eating a balanced breakfast every morning will help with staying focused in class or how the antioxidants derived from eating fruits and vegetables help prevent sickness and encourage participation in fun activities.
Children learn to eat whatever is made available to them starting during infancy. In some cases, pediatricians may recommend a baby to switch over to a denser and higher-calorie formula in order to support growth or fight against rare conditions like Prader Willi Syndrome. As kids leave bottle feeding and start loving adult-food, encourage healthy snacking. Keep fruits and vegetables in a bowl on the counter, not stored in the back of the refrigerator. Keep pre-portioned trail mix that’s ready to grab, or keep string cheese in the fridge. Remember that kids also learn from example, so your own eating and snacking behaviors will trickle down to them.
Children who have food restrictions may develop an eating disorder later in life. If these restrictions lead to feelings of deprivation, children may develop behaviors such as hiding food, hoarding food and binge eating when those restricted foods are made available (e.g., at birthday parties or a friend’s house). Instead of banning certain foods, positively encourage healthier food choices, such as lean meats, fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy and whole grains. Also, avoid shaming if your child makes a less nutrient-dense choice on occasion.
It’s important to encourage balance and eating in moderation. Children are less likely to feel deprived and will learn that they can fit less nutrient-dense foods into a healthy diet within moderation. Allow family members one daily “fun” food of their choice. This may include a small dessert after dinner, a bag of chips with lunch or a small soda at a restaurant.
Using food as a reward may condition children to turn to food when anything positive happens. This may lead to struggles with weight later in life and can place an unnecessary power on food that promotes emotional eating. Plan rewards that are not tied to food, such as taking your kids on a fun family outing.
People are naturally intuitive eaters, so forcing children to “clean their plates” isn’t “nutrition-smart.” Prepare meals with a variety of options, and encourage youngsters to take at least one bite of everything before deciding whether they prefer it or not. Have healthy snacks available between meals for children who voice that they are hungry.
Chores are not most kids’ first choice for a fun pastime, so avoid making physical activity feel like work. Find out what activities your children find fun. Sign them up for leagues with their friends or sports camps over the summer. Any time the whole family can do something active together is always a plus.
Research shows that children who eat dinners with their parents at the table have better overall nutrition, growth and development and are less likely to get in serious trouble as teenagers. Dining as a family is also a great opportunity for parents to model healthy eating behaviors and choices in food. Start by dedicating one night a week, and work your way up to three or four nights of family dinners per week.
It’s important to be aware of how we talk about bodies (our own and our children’s), as kids need a healthy relationship not only with food and exercise, but also with their self-image. If children constantly hear and observe mom and dad speaking negatively about their own bodies, they may begin to think critically about theirs as well. Every child grows at a different rate. Consult with a pediatrician if you have any concerns about your child’s weight before intervening, as restricting their intake in any way may significantly compromise growth and development.
A great way to promote a healthy relationship with food is to encourage involvement with food at a young age. Have them give input when planning meals for the week; bring them shopping so they learn how to navigate the grocery store. Exposure to the kitchen and teaching basic cooking skills can go a long way, especially when they are ready to leave the nest.