For mom Jennifer Schwartz of Granger, Indiana, the road to developing healthy eating habits for her two daughters, 9 and 10, involves small but steady steps. She's trying to lead the way and model healthy eating at home, but she's also a realist. Rather than depriving her daughters of all treats, she's cutting back on the larger ones they've had in the past. And she's buying different snacks to keep less junk food in the house. "It's important for my girls to develop healthy eating habits now, before puberty, and stay active so they can be healthier people," Schwartz says. "I want healthy choices to become routine for them."
Schwartz's efforts seem to echo the mission of First Lady Michele Obama's Let's Move! campaign, the initiative launched in February 2010 to help solve the rising challenge of childhood obesity. Let's Move! combines comprehensive strategies with common sense, giving parents helpful information and fostering environments that support healthy choices. Let's Move reminds us that:
- Over the past three decades, childhood obesity rates in America have tripled.
- Today, nearly one in three children in America are overweight or obese.
- If we don't solve this problem, one third of all children born in 2000 or later will suffer from diabetes at some point in their lives, and many others will face chronic obesity-related health problems like heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer and asthma.
The campaign calls for healthier foods in schools, healthy and affordable food for families and increased physical activities for kids, among other actions. Simultaneously, parents and caregivers can fight the obesity battle at home. Below, experts Caree Jackson, a registered dietician from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and Let's Move! Child Care, and Stephen Pont, MD, MPH, FAAP, a pediatrician directing childhood obesity programs at Dell Children's Medical Center and Chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics' (AAP) Provisional Section on Obesity, share ideas how to get going and stick to it.
- Start Staging
Purchasing healthy snacks is important, but here is the key: keep them visible! We all know how easily things get pushed and prodded in the pantry and fridge. Make it easy for your kids to find healthy options, says Jackson. Place a fruit basket filled with pre-washed fresh fruit on the counter. Position healthy snacks at eye level in the pantry. Put items like applesauce and low-fat yogurt within your child's reach in the refrigerator. Choices like carrots, pre-sliced apples, and berries are packed with nutrients, appealing to the eye, and taste great!
- Resist Using Food as a Reward
It's so tempting to use sweet treats to entice our kids to behave well, work hard or even eat their dinner. Or, threaten to take dessert away if she won't stop whining, acting out, etc. But Jackson warns us not to use food as a reward or punishment. She explains that parents should focus on making mealtime pleasant and not associating food with your child's behavior. Serving healthy, balanced meals should be a top priority whatever the mood. An alternative to sweets? Fun outings, stickers, an extra 15-minutes of screen time, etc.
- Keep Water on Tap
Many beverages are high in calories and low in nutrients. Encourage water as the beverage of choice. Serve it with meals, adding berries, orange slices or cucumbers for a little flavor. The taste remains refreshing and calorie-free, but still keeps kids hydrated. Remind your babysitters this is a house rule -- as they may find it easier to grab a juice box -- and grandparents -- who may be used to serving up soda with every visit.
- Think Outside the "Athletics" Box
Sports are great, but they're not for everyone. It's not necessary for kids to compete or be on a team to be healthy, insists Dr. Pont. As parents and nannies, the goal is to focus on activity and movement. Martial arts, tennis, golf and swimming are great for kids not interested in team sports. Think of your child's interests and plan from there. Love science or bugs? Take hikes or try canoeing. Have a budding artist? Trek to find nature items for art projects.
- Model and Motivate
Your kids are always watching you, Dr. Pont reminds us. If mom or dad does something, it shows the kids that it is important. Remember: This happens with good habits and bad ones! So, if you want your kids to be healthier, think about what you can do to be healthier too. It's much easier for your kids to follow your words when they see them backed up with your actions. A cookie-eating couch potato parent may find it hard to convince her kids to snack on fruit and play outside after school.
All of the above will help healthy weight kids stay healthy and will help kids who are struggling with their weight to get healthier. Think your skinny snacker doesn't need a change? Unfortunately, even currently healthy-weight kids are at risk of being obese adults. Implementing these tips as a healthy lifestyle now can help prevent future weight problems for everyone.
Let's face it: For busy families, the healthy choices may not always be the easiest or most convenient options. Start small, Dr. Pont advises, and don't try to change everything at once. Work gradual changes into your lives or you're likely to resort to old bad habits after a few weeks.
Join Care.com and Let's Move! Child Care to Help Fight Childhood Obesity.