Lives in the Balance - Tips for Raising Healthy, Happy Kids
By Angel Biasatti
Too many kids spend hours sitting at the screen, whether they’re on Facebook, watching TV or playing video games. This ever-sedentary lifestyle is increasing their risk for obesity, with nearly one out of every three children considered overweight or obese, according to the U.S. Surgeon General.
So what can parents and grandparents do to ensure we are raising healthy, happy kids? For starters, think about how kids operate. They learn from us and they like to have a good time. As mothers and fathers, grandmas and grandpas, we can use this motivation to help make our households healthier, one step at a time.
Set The Standard
“Begin by encouraging physical activity, limiting computer and television time, and serving nutritious meals to help children maintain a healthy weight,” recommends Nancy Georgekutty, MD, independently practicing family medicine physician and weight management specialist on the medical staff of Methodist Mansfield Medical Center.
“Parents and grandparents are so important in the eyes of children and grandchildren,” says Georgekutty. “If youngsters see the adults in the family enjoying new foods and turning off the television to do something fun and active, then they are more likely to do the same.”
While children’s activity levels can contribute to weight gain, so can other factors. “Some kids have a tendency to be obese because they make poor food choices, each too much, or have underlying medical conditions,” she says.
“To help keep your children healthy, limit time spent being sedentary — like sitting in front of a computer or smartphone, watching TV or playing video games — to no more than two hours a day.
“Encourage physical activity for at least an hour a day. It can be in various segments throughout the day — whether it’s 15 minutes here or 10 minutes there, it all adds up,” she says.
If your children like to use pedometers or fitness apps, aim for a least 10,000 steps a day and gradually do more. But overall, have fun.
“Check out Oliver Nature Park or one of the other parks in our area for riding bikes, hiking and walking the dog. Go to a driving range and hit a bucket of golf balls. At home, play catch or tag, make spelling practice fun by doing it while jumping rope, find opportunities where your children can mow the grass for a neighbor, or help plant vegetables or flowers in the yard — just keep the kids moving,” she says.
On cold or rainy days, she recommends turning the house into an exercise gym. Set a timer and have family members move from one room to another doing various exercises. Be creative! “Kids can hula-hoop in the family room, do jumping jacks in the laundry room and scale the stairs like a mountain climber,” she says.
In addition to increasing children’s physical activity level, keep lots of fruits and vegetables available for snacks and meals, and monitor portion size. “Eating too much at any one time can make your child gain weight,” she says. “Encourage them to eat four to six small meals during the day, which constantly supplies their body with the calories they need to keep their metabolism higher. And make sure their overall calorie expenditure is more than their calorie intake, which is more important in maintaining or losing weight than monitoring the times of day that they eat.”
Changing Finicky Tastes
Dr. Georgekutty offers some strategies for picky eaters.
• Plant bright red tomatoes or green peppers in your garden. Herbs are also easy and fun to grow, and they add flavor to home-cooked meals.
• Take your children to a Farmers Market , where the farmers themselves can help kids choose the best cantaloupe or the freshest lettuce.
• Have your children help create a meal. Create a countertop buffet with bowls of sautéed or fresh veggies and other fixings for nutritious build-your-own tacos, stuffed peppers, salads or sandwiches.
• Incorporate fruit and vegetables into your recipes to lower calories. Slip kale and soy into smoothies, layer spinach into lasagna or puree peaches to make a sauce for baked chicken.
• Try boosting menu appeal through “rebranding.” “Asking your kids if they’re up for ‘snowballs,’ ‘Jack’s giant raisins’ or ‘spears’ sounds a lot more fun than giving them cauliflower, prunes or asparagus,” says Georgekutty.
• Whip up a new veggie dish with your child and name it after the young chef. “The next thing you know, you may get regular requests for Sam’s Posh Squash, Tanner’s Savory Yams or Jennifer’s Silly Beans,” she says.
• Host a tasting party to introduce the family to new varieties of fruits and vegetables.
• Raid the pantry and have kids compare food labels. Parents can invent a guessing game about things like serving sizes, calories, fat and added sugar.
• Encourage kids to adorn their plates with a rainbow of color. Explain that brightly colored foods like oranges, carrots, spinach and raspberries are especially good for them.
• Create a food-for-you cookbook with your kids. Gather healthy recipes from newspapers, cookbooks and websites. Take some of your family favorites and see if you can adjust the ingredients to reduce fat, salt and sugar content without sacrificing flavor.
• Decorate personalized water cups to encourage your children to drink water during the day rather than sugar-sweetened beverages. Have kids use markers, glitter and stickers to make their water cup special.
“The more kids are involved in choosing recipes, shopping, peeling vegetables and stirring pots, the more likely they are to try new foods,” she says. “And cooking together can help create habits for a lifetime of healthy eating.”
Most experts will agree that eating less and maintaining a healthy diet of fat, carbohydrates and proteins will do more to help you lose weight than just decreasing the amount of fat in your diet.
In general, try not to skip meals or grab food on the go. “Plan family meals and don’t forget breakfast. It is the most important meal of the day and it’s important for your children to start the day off correctly,” she says. “When you skip a meal, the body goes into a ‘storage’ mode in case it doesn’t get fed again. Your child can actually gain weight because those fewer calories that they’re taking in are stored almost immediately as fat. What’s more, skipping important meals like breakfast will cause your child to be hungrier and eat more later in the day.
“Getting kids to eat better can take patience and persistence,” she says. “But along the way, try to help kids see the pleasure in healthy eating. You’ll be helping them develop a lifelong love of good, nutritious food.
If your children need to lose weight, make the weight-loss goal realistic. Don’t expect them to be able to run a marathon in a week or shed the extra pounds overnight. It takes most people about one month to lose 10 pounds the healthy way.
Write down how you’re going to accomplish your family’s weight-loss goal and individualize it with everyone’s name. Build a timeline that includes exercise, eating family meals at home and getting enough sleep — then get started.
“Take a stand for your family and stay focused,” she concludes. “Weight loss takes dedication and determination. Use the support and resources around you to help your children lose weight and gain a healthier life. Talk with your doctor about what is right for you and your family.”
Angel Biasatti is director public and community relations at Methodist Mansfield Medical Center.
Texas law prohibits hospitals from practicing medicine. The physicians on the Methodist Health System medical staff are independent practitioners who are not employees or agents of Methodist Health System or Methodist Mansfield Medical Center.