Portion sizes at restaurants have nearly tripled over the last 30 years. That’s concerning, because busy families are eating out more than ever before. Additionally, sugar-sweetened drinks are popular, and recess and physical education have drastically decreased in schools. Less exercise and increasing access to unhealthy food and drink options are causing many children and teens to acquire poor lifestyle habits that lead to obesity.
To avoid the serious and often lifelong health risks associated with childhood obesity, Children’s Colorado’s Head of Nutrition Nancy Krebs, MD, says parents should strive to be role models for their children when it comes to healthy eating and drinking. Browsing the many parent resource articles with pediatric lifestyle tips on our website can help families learn more and feel confident and empowered to create healthy habits.
Increase parental involvement at school and at home
- Know the food and exercise policies at your child’s school. If you have a concern, contact school officials and try to influence those policies.
- Advocate for fundraisers that do not include selling of food items, especially those with junk food or soda.
- Avoid sending young children to school with money for vending machines.
- Send lunch to school with your child and involve your child in packing that lunch. Use MyPlate to learn about the kinds of foods you should be packing. Or, if your child eats school lunch, check out this guide to school lunch.
- Stock the kitchen with fruit and vegetables, and refrain from buying junk food.
- Let your child pick out one or two new fruits or vegetables at the grocery store.
- Promote the idea that your child can always have more vegetables.
- Prepare food or a meal plan for the week on Sunday nights.
- Prepare healthy snacks ahead of time. Cut up fruit and vegetables to “grab and go.”
- Check out healthy websites for cookbooks and recipes.
Keep it predictable
Setting regular schedules for healthy eating and physical activity is important, especially for young children, because they’re more likely to adopt them as habits. According to Dr. Krebs, kids respond well to the predictability of regular schedules because it makes them feel secure.
Eat the right breakfast
Kids need the right kind of energy to sustain their learning schedules. Skipping breakfast leaves them low on energy and focus, and they are likely to overeat later in the day. Eating the wrong breakfast can be just as bad. Pastries and sugary cereal don’t fill them up for very long, and they don’t provide adequate energy for a full morning of school. A healthy breakfast could include a combination of the following:
- Protein (low-fat milk, yogurt or cheese, eggs, lean meats like turkey or small serving of nuts)
- Carbohydrates (hot or cold whole-grain cereals like oatmeal, whole-grain toast, whole-grain waffles or pancakes with light syrup)
- Fruit (fresh or frozen with no added sugar)
- Vegetables (fresh, frozen or canned)
We’ve added two of our favorite breakfast recipes on our Resources page.
Eat at home
Although it’s OK to eat out once in a while, eating out regularly may normalize unhealthy food choices and over-sized portion for your kids. Dr. Krebs says that children who eat at home are more likely to eat fruit and vegetables than children who eat many of their meals at restaurants.
Cooking meals at home doesn’t have to take a lot of time. Making a plan and having the right kind of food on hand can help. Here’s how to start making quick, easy and healthy meals. When you do eat at restaurants, our nutrition experts can help you understand how to choose healthier options.
Practice portion control
Children don’t need to eat as much food as adults, but the amount of food they need can vary by age, gender and overall activity level. For example, a two-year-old needs a different portion size than a 7-year-old, and a 7-year-old needs a different portion size than a 15-year-old. MyPlatePlan can give you a general understanding of portion sizes by age, but you should talk with your child’s primary care provider regularly about what is right for your child.
Children often consume more when they eat unhealthy food. Often, this food is high in simple carbohydrates, like sugar and fat, which makes them tasty but high in calories. Simple carbohydrates don’t provide the same sense of satisfaction or fullness as a healthy serving size of nutritious foods like fruits and vegetables, meaning children may eat more unhealthy foods in order to feel full.
Read about our patient, Brandon, whose family focused on portion control to help him develop healthier habits.
Lose the soda
Children who drink sugar-sweetened beverages will on average consume an excess of 200 calories a day. Krebs notes that the problem extends beyond soda to include any sugar-sweetened beverage like fruit juice, energy drinks, sweat tea, lemonade and flavored coffees. All of these have added sugar and increase your child’s risk of obesity. Water is the best drink choice, but if taste is the issue, here are 11 tips to try.
Eat your fruit, don’t drink it
Fruit has important vitamins and minerals, and also includes fiber, which helps kids feel fuller, explains Dr. Krebs. Kids who drink juice instead of eating a whole piece of fruit often end up consuming more calories. Experts recommend that children drink no more than a small 4-oz serving of juice per day. Offering water (including flavored or sparkling) is the best choice. For a fun snack, try making homemade popsicles out of calorie-free water. Get the tasty recipe from our Resources page.
Dr. Krebs advises parents to promote physical activity by encouraging kids to play outside safely. This can include any activity, like biking or hiking with the family, but can also include simple outdoor exploration. The important thing is that children get at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day, and it can be helpful to divide that activity into short bursts of 10, 15 or 20 minutes. Allowing kids to play outside, especially with other children, teaches them about taking turns, listening, cooperation, following rules and independence.