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Healthy Eating Should Be a Family Affair

Proper nutrition during growth and development is critical not only for physical and mental growth but also for building a healthy foundation for long-term health, weight, and eating habits. 

We know that today’s children are struggling with their nutrient intake, weight, and health.  In fact, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) shows rates of childhood obesity have more than tripled in the last three decades.[i]  And studies have confirmed that obese children and adolescents have higher risks for cardiovascular disease and diabetes both during their youth and during adulthood.[ii]

Let’s consider the average daily diets of kids in the United States. Data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES 2003-2006) confirmed the gaps between children’s recommended and actual nutrient intakes. It found the top sources of energy for participants, ages 2-18, to be high in sugar and saturated fats via soda, desserts, pizza, fruit drinks, and whole milk.[iii] Nearly 40% of their daily intake was deemed empty calories!

In 2010, President Obama signed the “Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act” to address the nutrient content of school lunches, the first major overhaul in decades.[iv] Instead of high fat, fried, high sugar, processed lunch options, the USDA proposed to incorporate more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.  Unfortunately, that only covers one of three meals a day for five days of the week. 

The rest of the responsibility for properly nourishing children rests squarely with parents. As parents, we purchase the food and prepare the meals. We are the gatekeepers and should be educators as well. It is important to model the right foods to eat and to try to maintain a consistent meal schedule, whenever possible.  In our busy culture, activities and schoolwork can bump regular rituals, like sit-down dinners. If we make family meals a priority, our children will also view them as important.

So, how can we get our kids to eat healthier foods?  It’s critical to get them engaged in food shopping and meal preparation. Children feel more empowered and important when they help choose and create what the family eats.

Here are some general tips to help you to get started:

  • Don’t buy into the “kid’s food” labels and their claims:
    • These foods tend to be more processed with less nutritional value.
    • You’ll find artificial colors, additives, high sodium, high fructose corn syrup, saturated fats and not much in the way of real food.
  • Switch out old snacks for new (natural) snacks:
    • Cottage cheese with fresh fruit (preferably organic)
    • Apple slices with all natural peanut butter
    • Vegetables with hummus dip
    • Homemade trail mix (almonds, cashews, dried cherries, a few chocolate chips)
    • Frozen pops made with organic yogurt
    • Whole grain crackers with cheese
  • Have fresh fruits and vegetables washed and cut in the fridge for easy access – so kids can grab and go.
  • Encourage more water consumption or organic 1-2% milk. Limit juice to 100% fruit juice and one cup a day. Avoid purchasing soda, fruit drinks or sport drinks entirely.
  • Make food colorful and fun!  Open your child’s mind to a variety of new foods by presenting them in an appealing, exciting way.
    • Use cookie cutters for natural (nitrate and nitrite free) deli meats and cheeses
    • Skewer fresh organic fruit and cheese chunks
    • Create faces, flowers, or other designs on your child’s plate
  • Try new recipes (with your child’s input) but try not to introduce more than one or two new foods (color, shape, texture) at a time.
  • Make every meal a healthy balance of lean protein sources (chicken, turkey, wild fish, grass fed beef, eggs), low-fat organic dairy sources (milk, yogurt, cheese), fresh vegetables and fruit, whole grains, and healthy fats (nuts, seeds, nut butters, hummus, guacamole).
  • Have a family “theme night” meal:
    • Monday is Italian night, Tuesday is Asian night …
    • Wednesday is Wacky night – have breakfast for dinner or eat from cups vs. plates
    • Thursday is Kid’s night – your child picks the menu (with your nutritious balance discretion) and helps shop, prepare and serve.

In summary: As parents, we need to guide our children in healthy eating habits.  Engaging our children in food purchases, meal balance design and preparation are first steps in making healthy eating a lifelong habit for the entire family.

Written by: Cindi Lockhart, RD, LD, FDN, FLT, Life Time Fitness

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.

[i] National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (CDC). Ogden CL, Carroll MD, Curtin LR, Lamb MM, Flegal KM. Prevalence of high body mass index in US children and adolescents, 2007–2008. JAMA 2010;303(3):242–9.

[ii] Freedman, DS, et al. Cardiovascular risk factors and excess adiposity among overweight children and adolescents: the Bogalusa heart study. J Pediatrics. Jan 2007; 150 (1): 12-17.

[iii] Reedy, J, Krebs-Smith, SM. Dietary sources of energy, solid fats, and added sugars among children and adolescents in the US. J Am Diet Assoc. 2010; 110 (10): 1477-1484.

[iv] The White House Office of the Press Secretary- Press Release Dec 13, 2010.

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Reader Comments (2)

This makes perfect sense. Wish I could start over with my own kids teaching them healthy eating and healthy choices. Thanks for a well written article.
I guess I can now start with my grandson.

February 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCarol Snyder

Nice article Cindi!

February 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSteve Roberts

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