“Want my pizza bagel?” “Awesome,
here’s my blueberries!”
Is your daughter, son or grandchild
a master dealer at lunch? Packing
a healthy school lunch is
helpful only if the food
ends up in the tummy—or gets traded for something
else that isn’t
loaded with sugar, fat
or salt. But even in
the chaotic, wolf-down-your-lunch-to-get-to-recess-as-soon-as-possible
world of the school
can make smart food
choices. Parents and
caregivers play a key
role in helping children
learn the fundamentals
of healthy living—eating
well and staying active—whatever pressures they
face outside home.
Child nutrition specialist
Dr. Daniel Raiten at NIH says that
one of the most important strategies
for parents to help kids stay
healthy is to foster good eating habits
at home. Raiten talks often to kids
in schools and finds that few understand
what a healthy “diet” means.
“Most think that diet is a verb—
what you do to lose weight,” Raiten
says. “I tell them that diet is the
mix of foods that gets into their
body, and healthy nutrition is the
end result of eating good food in a
Try to help children see healthful
eating as a natural and fun part of
every day. “My own kids help me cook,” Raiten
adds, “and we sit
down and eat our meals
together every night.”
Another way to encourage healthy
eating is to sample a variety of fruits
and vegetables from the grocery
store or local farmers market. Chances
are that even “expensive” produce
is still cheaper than most processed
foods on supermarket and convenience
Teach your kids how to be savvy
consumers. Enlist them as food
detectives at the grocery store. Set
some standards for healthy foods and
show them how to read Nutrition Facts labels, which
list the nutrition
foods. Then let
them choose a
few items that make
the grade. If you’re
not sure what to
look for on labels,
is likely to
says, “so keep
the guilt out of it.”
Better to chat regularly
with your child
about good eating
habits, he says, and praise
him or her for making smart
choices in the grocery, at school or
in a restaurant.
If kids are eating well outside of
school, you may wonder if their diet
at school really matters. The answer
is a resounding “yes.” Research has
shown that appropriate levels of fat,
sugar, vitamins and minerals like iron
contribute to development, learning
and general behavior.
Packing a healthy school lunch can be a family activity. Involving kids in the decision process can help them learn how to make good choices and also feel more enthusiastic about their lunch options. Most are more likely to eat meals they help prepare. Since weekday mornings can be a crazy time crunch, pack lunches the night before. Have your child choose a few healthy items, such as pretzel sticks, popcorn, snap peas, fresh strawberries or pudding.
If your children buy lunch at school, make sure to talk to them about how to choose healthier food options, and why it’s so important.
Parents need to teach children not only what to eat, but how much. People tend to blame restaurants’ super-sized meals for Americans’ expanding waistlines, but portion distortion has become a part of our everyday lives. In a 2006 study, researchers randomly gave participants a small or large bowl and a small or large serving spoon, and everyone served themselves ice cream. Those given a bigger bowl and spoon ate the most—a whopping 57% more than people with small ones.
The lesson is to pay attention to serving size. Use smaller dishes and containers for treats, and bigger ones for fruits and veggies.
Healthy food and an appreciation for eating smart is only half of the health equation, however. In a recent study funded by NIH (see this month’s Health Capsule), more than 90% of grade-school children met the recommended level of 60 minutes or more of moderate to vigorous physical activity each day. That’s the good news. By age 15, however, far fewer boys and girls were cycling, swimming or just plain running around. Only 31% met the recommended level on weekdays, while 17% met the recommended level on weekends.
Upping physical activity is a key goal of the NIH-sponsored health awareness campaign We Can! (Ways to Enhance Children’s Activity and Nutrition!). This science-based national education program provides useful resources for teachers, parents and community program planners. Making healthy food choices, increasing physical activity and cutting screen time are WeCan!’s main goals.
We Can! has lots of helpful tips for fitting more physical activity into the family’s daily routine. It also has tools to help parents pick healthier foods and drinks and plan healthier meals for the family. For kids, it provides an easy way to think about food choices. GO foods are great anytime; SLOW foods are all right to have sometimes or less often; and WHOA foods should be eaten only once in a while or on special occasions. Visit http://wecan.nhlbi.nih.gov or call toll-free, 1-866-35-WECAN, to learn more.
In today’s media-soaked society, kids and teens—even preschoolers—are exposed to a flood of messages that counter home- and school-based teaching about nutrition and health. Media-Smart Youth is an NIH-sponsored after-school program for young people from 11 to 13 years old. It challenges young people to analyze and recognize ways the media tries to get their attention, and to evaluate these media messages for accuracy and for consistency with their ideas about being healthy. Visit www.nichd.nih.gov/msy to learn more.
Remember, good eating habits start at home. Children are much more likely to do what you do, not what you say. So eat smart and teach your kids how to make good choices themselves.