A Parenting Dialogue: How Do I Improve My Kid's Eating Habits?
I have two kids, a 7-year-old girl and a 12-year-old boy. Both are overweight. I am trying to make changes to their diets to help them lose weight, as well as be healthier in general. They will both snack on junk food all day long, and I’m struggling to help them understand that this is not a healthy behavior. I do offer healthier alternatives. They’ll eat those, but then they want to reward themselves by eating something unhealthy. My daughter will also sneak food. If I have any candy or that sort of thing in the house, she’ll eat it secretly.
I need advice on how to discuss the short and long-term effects of their diets on their health in a way that won’t totally mess them up forever. I was chubby as a kid, and my parents’ efforts to fix the problem did more harm than good. I don’t want my kids to feel like I did, nor do I want them to end up struggling with disordered eating for the rest of their lives. I really want to teach them healthy eating habits for kids that will follow them even when they’re not in my house. Any suggestions on how to do this are very appreciated!
The New Mom
I have had similar struggles in my household, though my kids are much younger (ages 4 and 6). I got all junk food out of the house about nine months ago and replaced it with healthy trail mix, apple slices with peanut butter, smoothies, and vegetables and dip (like chocolate hummus and ranch dressing). My kids didn’t seem to notice the change in options…sort of an “out of sight, out of mind” thing, I think. My nutritionist said that kids usually just stop eating when they are satisfied. They don’t typically emotionally eat as adults do. I have also gotten into the habit of taking the kids to the local park on the way home from school. I think the extra activity has been good for them as well.
Have you met with a nutritionist? I met with one to discuss good eating habits for kids and got almost all of the needed information from a single one-hour meeting. I highly recommend doing this, as I found it to be very helpful. Maybe making changes gradually would help them to make the transition to healthier eating.
-- Sarah, mother of two elementary-school children
The Experienced Mother
I guess I just don't get the problem. Or more to the point, I get the problem, but I don't get how parents don't see it's a problem they are making. Don't keep the "junk" in your house. Your kids can't binge on what isn't there. Sure, they might still do it on the days they're at a friend’s house, but at least they aren't doing it all the time.
I don't think there's any shame in sitting the kids down and explaining, "Listen, your body is a machine. Fill it with junk food, and it will run like junk. You will have health problems." That's the truth, right? I'm not saying run a militant household and never give them a treat. But a treat should be a treat and not available all the time. Don’t enable your children's bad eating habits.
My husband and I raised our kids with the idea that soda and chips were for birthday parties and special occasions. They just weren't things in the cupboard available 24/7. And it worked pretty well. Good luck. I know it's hard, and I'm sure you are doing your best.
-- Katie, mom of four grown children
The Pediatricians' Approach
Improving kids’ eating habits can be a challenge. Family schedules are hectic, and it’s easy to turn to grab-and-go convenience food. Implementing a few key strategies, though, can be a way to improve the overal eating habits of your entire busy household. According to Dr. Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, a pediatrician and Medical Editor at Nemours KidsHealth, these techniques can help improve nutrition and encourage smart eating habits for all children, from toddlers to teens:
Enjoy regular family meals together.
It doesn’t have to be fancy or over the top. You just need to take the time to sit down together to eat once in a while. These rituals are comforting for both parents and children. Kids enjoy predictability, and parents have the opportunity to catch up with their kids. Research also indicates that kids who participate in regular family meals are also:
- more likely to eat fruits, vegetables, and grains;
- less inclined to snack on unhealthy foods; and
- less likely to smoke, use marijuana, or drink alcohol.
Invest in healthy foods.
Kids will eat mostly what's available at home so try to keep healthy options on hand for meals and snacks. Keep fruits and veggies in stock and ready to eat, serve lean proteins, limit fat intake, choose whole-grain products, and limit fast foods and empty-calorie snacks.
Set a good example.
Your children are watching. By eating fruits and vegetables and not overindulging in the less nutritious choice, you send a clear message. Serving appropriate portion sizes and not overeating also helps. Discuss what “fullness” feels like, especially with younger children. For example, you might remark, "This is so yummy, but I'm feeling full, so I think I’ll stop eating." Try to keep your comments positive. Parents who constantly diet or speak disparagingly about their own bodies may inadvertently encourage those same negative feelings in their kids.
Don’t make food a source of conflict.
It’s easy to slip into bribery or begging to convince kids to eat. A more effective strategy, however, is to give kids some degree of control while limiting what’s available to them at home. Allow your child to decide whether they’re hungry, what they’ll eat, and when they’ve had enough. As a parent, you get to decide what’s available to them.
Involve them in the process.
Involving your children in the meal prep process can help prepare them to make good choices on their own about the foods they want to consume. Talk to them about how to plan a well-balanced meal. Take them shopping for ingredients and teach them what to look for on food labels. Give them age-appropriate tasks in the kitchen so that they can participate without getting hurt or feeling overwhelmed. Be sure to heap lots of praise on your mini-chef, as well.
The Holistic Approach
A:The Dieticians of Canada is an organization that focuses on healthy eating throughout the lifecycle (from infants to seniors), nutrition topics of interest, and preventing and managing health conditions. They offer a holistic, natural approach to improving children’s eating habits by reminding parents that kids are quite adept at responding to their own hunger and fullness cues.
Holistic nutrition goes beyond generalizations to account for the fact that every person has a unique body, and consequently, unique needs. Dieticians of Canada encourages parents to observe overall eating patterns each week rather than focusing on specific, daily events. After all, a child’s appetite can change from meal to meal depending on activity level, stress, location, exhaustion level, or whether they’re experiencing a growth spurt. They recommend trying the following tips to help your child eat well:
- Allow your child to determine what they’ll eat from the choices offered. Don’t force or restrict the amount.
- Keep to regularly scheduled meals and snack times. Try not to give snacks too close to mealtimes. This helps your little one come to the table hungry and ready to eat.
- Encourage hydration between meals. Avoid milk or juice since this may make them feel too full for nutritious foods at mealtime.
- Model healthy eating habits. Let them watch you eat and enjoy lots of different types of healthy foods.
- Keep mealtimes as stress-free as possible. Turn off electronics and remove toys or other distractions.
- Don’t engage in praise, punishment, rewards, or coercion to convince your child to eat.
- Encourage lots of physical activity every day to help increase your little one’s appetite.
Parents often feel pressure — whether from other parents or family members or from what they’re reading online — to obsess over what their child eats or to compare those diets against those of other children. However, most experts agree that parents should decide what’s best for their own family, and not worry about what other families do. Paying attention to your child’s overall growth in relation to their age is one of the most important ways to measure your child’s healthy development. In some cases, though, it’s better to simply concentrate on bringing up a healthy, happy child and not obsess about the numbers on the scale.
Speak to your pediatrician or a dietician if your child, at any age, starts obsessing about weight, or gains or loses a lot of weight in a short period of time. Keep an eye out for other red flags of disordered eating or unhealthy body image, such as missing meals, talking about how much they way, saying negative things about their appearance or about other people’s bodies, shaming others’ eating habits, or sneaking foods. A pediatrician or a nutritionist is a great resource who can help parents talk to their kids and develop a plan for healthy eating.
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