And by them I mean our children. Nutrition for infants and children of all ages has been a passion of mine since I started my career. I worked in a clinic teaching nutrition to low-income families of littles. I am telling you, what we do for our kids is really important. From the food and drinks to positive talk and teaching moments. It all makes a difference and it helps to start young.
I was at my son’s baseball game last night watching quite a few of the boys, ages 10-11, have a hard time running and moving. I was thinking what a difference it would make to work with families of young athletes discussing the importance of nutrition, fuel and hydration for performance and life. Not about emphasizing a child’s weight but teaching them and modeling healthy behaviors. Speaking from experience, I could have been a much better athlete had I taken better care of myself when I was younger. This is something I’ve really been working on more with my son lately because he has 5 practices and 2 games a week between soccer and baseball…but it’s not easy. Last week before soccer practice he was getting a snack and asked first for ice cream from the ice cream truck driving through our neighborhood. NO! Next, he asked for a bowl of potato chips. NO! Then, he asked for a Reese’s PB egg he saw in the fridge. NO, NO, NO! I know, the struggle is real.
This isn’t about nutrition for athletes but nutrition for kids in general and setting them up for success later on. According to Letsmove.org nearly 1 in 3 children in the US are overweight or obese. That’s a pretty big number! Kids are moving less, using electronics more and eating more. Let’s talk about ways we can help our kids and make a difference in their lives going forward. I will give you a few of the tips I feel strongly about when it comes to kids and healthy behaviors.
Regularly feed kids the foods you’d like them to eat, while also eating those foods yourself.
Offer more of the good stuff, less of the less good stuff. I don’t like to put labels on foods as good and bad. But, what happens when you start feeding your 1-year-old french fries? All of the sudden they start rejecting anything with color and throw a fit until a french fry is on their plate. Am I right? What children learn as far as nutrition habits and taste preferences as toddlers can determine how well they eat later on in life. Offer your children a variety of healthy, real foods often as part of their normal diet. Maybe you didn’t do that when your kids were toddlers? It’s never too late to start trying! Here are some ways to achieve this:
- Eat at home more often than eating out. It’s easier to make healthier choices when you have control of the things that can be the choices.
- Offer fruits and vegetables ALL THE TIME! This shows the importance of fruits and vegetables. Just know that it can take kids multiple times trying something before they decide they like it. Don’t give up on the 1st try.
- Model healthy habits for your kids with foods, beverages and activity. They should see you eating the foods you want them to eat and drinking water and getting in activity and so on.
- Have older kids (school age)? Talk to them about the importance of making healthy choices and maybe even set some goals. This week we will try 1 new vegetable and will drink water with dinner.
- Take your children to the store, or farmers market, or local orchard to allow them to see different foods available. Allow them to pick out a new food. Don’t be afraid to say no when they ask for things you’d rather not have in your house. Also allow them to help with meal preparations and they are more likely to eat the foods they helped prepare.
Stop using foods and/or drinks for rewards, punishments and to show love.
It is so easy to use food for all kinds of things but this can lead to an unhealthy relationship with food. Here is the low-down:
Stop using food as a reward.
- Food rewards are usually high in sugar and fat and low in nutrients. This undermines the healthy habits you are trying to teach and kids can start to associate feelings with certain foods.
- Rewarding good behavior with food teaches kids to eat when they may not be hungry. Reward them by going to the park or reading an extra book at bed time.
- Kids should eat their veggies because they are yummy and good for their bodies, not because there is an ice cream cone waiting at the end. This teaches them that some foods are more valuable and some are more unpleasant.
- If you use 1 or 2 foods consistently as rewards, keep those foods out of the house. Have them on occasion but not as a reward.
Stop using food as punishment or punishing because of food.
- Don’t punish a child for not cleaning their plate or not eating all of a certain food. Allow them to decide how much they need to eat as this can prevent overeating later on. Be positive!
- Don’t withhold food as a punishment.
Stop loving your child with food.
I see this mostly with divorced parents and with grandparents. It’s easy to love with food when you don’t see your kids as often or maybe there is guilt involved. Find activities that they enjoy doing with you that don’t involve food. For grandparents it is hard to say no or they use food because they can’t as easily enjoy activities with kids.
Offer your child appropriate beverages consistently.
This is a big one for me. Sugary beverages can cause increased weight gain as well as tooth decay. They can also take the place of nutritious foods, which is a double whammy. Here are my recommendations:
- Offer 2-3 cups of unsweetened milk daily, with some fat in it. The fat helps the vitamin D absorb. If you opt for a dairy free milk, know that the protein content could be very different from cow’s milk.
- If offering juice, choose 100% fruit juice and not a “fruit drink”. Only offer 4-6 ounces per day or less. Whole fruits are better than the juice and too much can promote tooth decay.
- Offer lots of water throughout the day.
- Avoid use of sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, see above.
- If your child is involved in activities, offer a small amount of sports drink if they are participating at a high intensity for an hour or more or sweats a lot. Really most kids do not need a sports drink, water will do the trick. Don’t make this a regular occurrence.
Nutrition and healthy choices are extremely important in your child’s life. Hopefully these tips emphasize that importance and give you ideas of how to make it happen at home. Hopefully they will thank you for it later.