Nearly 20% of American children are obese. This is a serious epidemic that needs to be addressed in a way much different from adult obesity. While adults are responsible for making their own decisions and are generally well informed about nutrition, children don’t have that knowledge. They rely on the information they receive from the parents and caregivers responsible for fulfilling their needs.
Children can’t go out and buy themselves unhealthy foods.
Even if they could, they wouldn’t necessarily understand the long-term impact of their dietary decisions. It’s up to parents and caregivers to reverse or prevent childhood obesity by utilizing better mealtime practices in the home and explaining the importance of nutrition to children.
It Starts With How You Stock Your Pantry
If you don’t have it, your child can’t eat it. Your child depends on you to provide them with the meals they eat. If you’re attempting to prevent your child from eating processed snacks with poor nutritional value, added sugar, and excess calories, don’t keep them in your home.
Choose healthier snacks. Air-popped popcorn is a whole grain and a decent source of fiber. Kids love popcorn during family movie nights. If your fridge is full of healthy snacks like fruit and low-fat yogurt, your child can make a parfait full of nutrients just as easily as they could make themselves an ice cream sundae.
Think About What You Put on the Table
Sit-down meals can be a little more difficult for busy parents to navigate. Nearly half of American families have two working parents. Preparing fresh, healthy meals three times a day on that schedule may feel impossible. This leads to parents seeking easy dinner solutions or grabbing takeout. They don’t want their children to go to bed hungry, and they’re doing the best they can to keep food on the table.
The struggle that busy parents face is very real. There will inevitably be times where a family-sized box of tacos from the drive-through is sitting in the middle of the dinner table. That’s okay, as long as these occasional indulgences don’t dominate the week.
Busy parents might find that a simple solution and meal prep can help their children with well-balanced meals throughout the week. Instant plain oatmeal with a spoonful of nut butter and a handful of fresh blueberries is a perfectly acceptable quick breakfast. Sandwiches and wraps can be made ahead for lunch - just wait to add the condiments until it’s time to eat them.
Prepping meal ingredients and storing them in freezer bags is an excellent solution for a nutritious dinner. Just thaw them as you go and put them in the slow cooker. Dinner will cook on low while you’re at work, and everyone will come home to something fresh and warm.
If your child is used to eating this way, they’ll understand that home-cooked meals are a better way to eat. Fast food won’t become the norm, and they’ll feel less inclined to immediately consider a burger to be a solution when they feel their tummies rumbling.
Focus on key food groups like healthy fats, lean meats, veggies, and whole grains like brown rice.
Create a School Lunch Solution
Parents are less in control of what’s on the menu at school. School lunches have a complicated and notorious history of being unbalanced and unhealthy.
While parents continue to advocate for better meal choices, budgets tend to prohibit fresh fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins. As much as your local school district would love to provide your child with a wholesome meal, they’re often doing as best as they can with the limited resources they have.
The simplest solution is to avoid school lunches. Packing your child a nutritious sandwich, like peanut butter on whole-wheat bread, with a bottle of water and a piece of fruit won’t take up too much of your time.
Older kids are often capable of packing their own lunches, and if they can, you should let them. This teaches them to plan healthy meals ahead of time, a necessary life skill that will come in handy once they begin to live independently.
Limit Your Child’s Exposure to Advertisements
About $12 billion is spent annually on advertisements directed at children. Children are young and impressionable. They can’t tell a good purchase from a bad one. They’ll see junk food on TV, and they’ll know it looks delicious. They’ll see sugary fruit juices with apples on the packaging and correlate with whole fruit. They don’t know the difference.
Children don’t have purchasing power. Every time your child watches an advertisement, its purpose is for them to turn to you and adamantly ask for something they want until you give in and get it. Advertisement is training your child to ask you for soda, chocolate, cake, chips, or crisps, and hearing the word “no” come from a parent’s mouth is often cause for turmoil.
Avoid the situation entirely by limiting your child’s exposure to advertisements. Switch to ad-free streaming services that curate children’s content. If your child uses social media platforms like YouTube, you can upgrade to premium to remove ads.
Only allow your child to watch truly child-friendly content creators, avoiding content sponsored by companies seeking to reach children.
If children don’t see advertisements that seem to be singing the merits of junk food and you don’t keep any at home, your child will be less likely to develop the notion that junk food is part of a healthy diet.
Teaching Children the Origins of Whole Food
Children don’t understand where food comes from. They have no idea what a fantastic thing a green bean really is. They’ve never seen a single seed transform into a massive bush full of fresh, nutritious green beans they can pick and eat whole. Maybe you should show them.
If you have outdoor space, consider starting a small family garden. It’s a great way to get children outside, active, and curious about the world. Your child may develop a greater appreciation for vegetables and berries they’ve helped to grow.
They’ll be excited throughout their learning journey up until their first harvest. Your child will likely be much more interested in and enthusiastic about eating vegetables if they grow them from the ground.
This firsthand experience will often equip your child with the knowledge and experience necessary to distinguish healthy foods from unhealthy foods independently. Eventually, they’ll conclude that there is no gummy bear tree or pizza bush. Give them a little help in making that connection to the food on the kitchen table.
Avoid Disguising Healthy Foods as Unhealthy Foods
Many parents like the idea of sneaking fruits and vegetables into other foods, covering them in cheese, or serving them in shapes reminiscent of fried nuggets. While this may get your child to consume more fruits and vegetables, it doesn’t explain to them the merits of doing so.
Children need to know why eating the right foods is necessary, and disguising them does nothing to achieve that goal. Every time you serve a new healthy food item, explain why you’re serving it.
For example, “These are carrots. Carrots have a lot of vitamin A, and your body needs vitamin A to help your eyes see, to help protect your body from germs, and to help you grow up into an adult.”
“This is yogurt. Yogurt has calcium and vitamin D. Your body needs calcium and vitamin D to make your bones strong and help you grow taller.”
“These are black beans. Beans have a lot of minerals and protein, which is what your muscles are made of. Protein helps you stay strong. Beans also have a lot of fiber, and fiber helps your body get rid of waste.”
These simple and direct explanations are easy for a child to comprehend. If you do this consistently, your child will begin to understand the value of healthy foods. Children eager to grow up may even specifically ask for foods that promote growth and development, hoping that it will help them reach maturity or grow taller faster. Salads, whole-wheat bread, low-fat dairy products, and almonds can all make great staples that your child will enjoy.
Think Twice About Your Vitamins
Avoid vitamins designed to look and taste like gummy candy if your child uses vitamin supplements. If you give your child four gummies full of too much sugar and say it’s to make them healthy, they’re going to get the wrong message.
Vitamins like Hiya’s one-a-day chewable children’s multivitamins are a better choice. They don’t look like candy, and they don’t contain any sugar. It will be easier for your child to understand that a vitamin is different from a snack.