Now that it’s March, you’re (hopefully) doing well on your own healthy New Year’s resolutions, but now it’s time also to focus on someone else’s health — your children’s.
Child obesity is a growing issue across the country, but Chicago children have even higher overweight and obesity prevalence rates than other U.S. children in the same ages groups, according to the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children. About 70 percent of Chicago students do not eat the recommended fruit and vegetable servings per day.
Dr. Jennifer Shu, the co-author of “Food Fights: Winning the Nutritional Challenges of Parenthood Armed with Insight, Humor, and a Bottle of Ketchup,” and Dr. Rebecca Unger, an attending physician at Northwestern Children’s Practice who has also worked at Lurie Children’s Hospital’s Wellness and Weight Management program, offer some of their best tips for happier and healthier children. (Bonus: Both are also parents.)
Shu said as a pediatrician, she often gets questions from families about how to improve their children’s nutrition and eating habits.
“With the rise in childhood obesity and lifestyles that may be less active than in the past, it can be challenging for parents to make sure their kids eat a healthy diet,” Shu said.
“Add that to the amount of times children eat outside the house [at school or daycare, restaurants, and friends’ or relatives’ houses for example], and it can be hard to stay on track,” Shu said.
Her response was to co-author “Food Fights,” which is full of practical tips (like the ones below) and simple recipes to help busy parents and picky eaters alike.
Neither pediatrician promoted a trendy, this-or-that free diet. Instead, they recommend following some basic, easy-to-follow guidelines:
1. Be a good role model
Don’t dish out the broccoli at dinner to your kids but not take some for yourself, too.
“Don’t expect your kids to eat as you say rather than as you do,” Shu said. However, she said that doesn’t mean parents have to deprive themselves. “If you must have those chips or that soda, enjoy them at work instead!”
Unger said being a good role model isn’t limited just to parents, but to siblings and other family members, too.
2. Control the options, but let the kids decide
“Parents provide, children decide,” Unger said. “It’s helpful for kids to be involved in the planning and preparation, especially for picky eaters.”
Shu recommends offering your child two or three healthy options, so you’ll feel good about whatever they choose.
3. Snacks are great…
“Some planned out snacks are helpful because if they graze throughout the day, they won’t get hungry,” Unger said. “If you pick up your children from school and they’re starving and you’re not prepared with a healthy snack, you might be more apt to stop at an unhealthy fast food place.”
4. …but not all snacks are created equal.
Unger says snacktime is a great time to sneak in some fruits and veggies. The Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children recommends five or more servings of fruits and vegetables per day.
“If you have a fruit or vegetable with each snack, that automatically is going to make it a healthier snack,” Unger said. The Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children recommends five or more servings of fruits and vegetables per day.
Shu recommends fortified cereal (not the sugary kind) and dried fruit as alternatives to packaged snacks like cookies and crackers.
5. Take advantage of timing
Shu suggests offering fruits and vegetables, with a healthy dip like hummus or guacamole, when the kids are hungry and dinner isn’t ready yet.
6. Eat meals as a family
“The importance of meals is sort of beyond nutrition,” Unger said. “Family meals have also been shown to decrease adolescent risk behavior.”
Unger said to avoid distraction during family meals. Instead of watching television while you eat, ask the kids interesting questions, like “what made you laugh today?”
7. Make good choices when eating out
Eating out is fun, Unger said, but she recommends making healthy choices, like holding off on the bread basket.
8. Break with tradition
Give kids breakfast food for dinner and vice versa, said Shu.
“There’s no rule that says you can’t have pasta in the morning if that’s what your child likes (and may be healthier than sugary cereals),” Shu said.
9. Healthy beverages
Most parents know to avoid giving their kids sugary drinks like soda, but sports drinks and juices can also be unhealthy.
Though it can be tempting to pass out sports drinks after soccer practice, Unger said they generally aren’t necessary, unless it’s extremely hot or kids were particularly exerted.
“Water is the healthiest rehydration we can get,” Unger said.
10. One hour of activity a day
The Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children recommends kids get at least one hour of active play a day, but Unger reminds parents that it doesn’t have to be all at once. Things like walking your child to and from school can count toward that hour.
“After dinner on a nice day – or a not-nice day – you might go on a walk, you might jump in puddles, you might build a snowman,” Unger said.
Unger also cautions that all children are different and might enjoy different activities.
“Some kids are going to want to be on a soccer team and some are going to want to turn on music and dance in the living room,” she said.