Eating better tops the list of New Year’s resolutions for many people, and justifiably so. With a growing majority of American adults being overweight or obese, there’s no question that it’s high time to re-evaluate the way many of us eat.
Kids are also joining the ranks of the overweight or obese in alarming numbers, and the medical community has noted that lifestyle-related health maladies once associated almost exclusively with older adults—such as cardiovascular disease and type-2 diabetes—are beginning to appear in much younger age groups. Hence, kids, too, need to start rethinking their eating habits. Or, more accurately, parents need to start rethinking kids’ eating habits for them.
This New Year, why not resolve to set your kids on the nutritional straight and narrow so they’ll be more likely to eat right and maintain a healthy weight for a lifetime? All it takes is a little deviousness on your part.
You read that right! This is going to be a stealth mission. Most of the changes you’re going to implement will “fly below the radar” of most kids who have learned to equate eating right with deprivation or “cutting out all the good stuff.” Do it right, and they probably won’t even notice that a change has taken place.
But before you get started, you’ll need to take a long, hard look at your own eating habits. Every parent knows that kids do as we do, not as we say, so if you don’t model the desired behavior by eating better yourself, everything that follows is for naught.
Gather at the table
A half-century ago, advising families to eat together at the table would have been stating the obvious, but due to our often hectic schedules, sitting down together for meals has since fallen by the wayside for many families. This is unfortunate because designating a family dining area really helps to prevent overeating.
When family mealtimes aren’t planned, kids usually end up eating while parked in front of the television or a computer. Since their attention is diverted by the screen, they pay less attention to the quantity of food they’re putting in their mouths and may not recognize the feeling of being full until after they’ve overeaten.
When serving a meal, pre-apportion the food on plates—in modest portions—and bring them to the dinner table, leaving the food-filled pots and pans in the kitchen. That way, more effort is required to get seconds.
Try to keep the conversation light and pleasant during mealtimes. Resist the urge to use the time for scolding or discussing sensitive topics that might lead to arguments, such as bad marks on a grade card. When mealtimes remain pleasant, kids are less likely to gulp down their food in order to get away from the table quickly.
Slow ‘em down
If you’ve ever closely observed a child eating French fries or potato chips, then you know how quickly kids can make food disappear. Just as kids who eat mindlessly while distracted by a computer or TV can miss the message that they’re full, kids who eat too quickly will tend to consume far more calories than they need before feeling satiated. That’s because there’s a lag time of approximately 20 minutes between your stomach actually being full and your mind receiving the signal that you’re full. Imagine how many unneeded calories a fast-eating child can pack away in 20 minutes!
Eating slowly also encourages proper chewing, which aids in digestion and nutrient absorption. Also, remind your kids that when they eat their favorite foods more slowly, they’ll get to enjoy them much longer.
Get ‘em involved
It may slow down or complicate your food shopping and meal preparation somewhat, but getting kids involved in choosing and preparing meals is a great way to find out what they like and don’t like, encourage them to try new foods, and help lay the foundation for a lifetime of sound nutritional decisions. Besides, if they have a firm grasp on the skills of cooking, they’ll be less likely to rely on fast food and convenience foods for every meal once they’ve left home.
Tell you’re kids that you expect them to snack. It’ll really throw them for a loop! After all, kids are accustomed to hearing that snacking is bad for you. But that only applies to continuous snacking on unhealthy foods. If you schedule snacks for specific times during the day and make them as healthy and nutritious as possible (a kids’ favorite is frozen blueberries topped with light whipped cream), they’ll be less inclined to forage continually in the fridge and pantry. Plus, it’ll help keep their appetite in check in between meals.
When children complain that they’re thirsty, more often than not what they have on their minds is soda or other sweetened drinks. If they learn to rely on these high-calorie drinks to quench their thirst, they’ll be at a much greater risk of becoming obese. Encourage your children to drink water instead, reserving the sweet stuff for occasional indulgences.
Don’t use food as leverage
It’s a common parenting tactic to use food as leverage to encourage desired behavior. For example, we might send our kids to bed without supper for bad behavior, or we might offer a cookie as a reward for good behavior. Unfortunately, we lose on both fronts. By withholding food, we create the anxiety that food will not always be available, so kids may eat every chance they get because they’re worried there might be nothing to eat later. By rewarding with food, we send the message that some foods—namely sweets and other high-calorie items—are better and more desirable than healthier foods. (If they weren’t, we’d reward good behavior with carrots, right?)
Someday they’ll thank you
None of these simple modifications involves outright deprivation or giving up treats altogether. Instead, they are subtle ways to steer your children toward a better way of eating—and, hopefully, a life free of obesity—without resorting to severe restrictions. Your kids probably won’t even know what you’re up to, but someday they just might thank you for it!