Childhood obesity is a huge problem in many countries today. Obesity now affects 17% of all children and adolescents in the United States, triple the rate from just one generation ago. Children in Mexico have the highest rates in the world for obesity, as defined by having a BMI (Body Mass Index) of more than 30. Statistics from the most recent large-scale survey in the UK shockingly reveal that 25 percent of boys and 33 percent of girls aged between two and 19 years are overweight or obese – and there’s little sign the incidence is slowing.
So what can we do to help our children develop better eating habits?
1. Start early. It’s never too soon to begin. (Conversely, it’s also never too late, so don’t despair if your teenager seems to prefer a diet of pizza and soda.) Simply don’t have junk food around the house. Give children the options of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and dairy products. You can’t stop them eating chips at their friend’s house, but you are in charge of the foods that enter your home.
2. Have fun. The more creative the meal is, the greater the variety of foods kids will eat. You can use cookie-cutters to turn toast into hearts and stars, or make happy-face pancakes. Get your kids cooking early on: they’ll be much more interested in eating something they’ve prepared themselves. As a teenager, my son cooked dinner once a week and was very proud of his creations.
3. Take kids shopping. When shopping, take kids with you, and let them help make decisions. Together, compare products and look for those that are the most environmentally responsible. For example, look at food labels and avoid products with chemical additives. Look for labels like fair trade and organic. No kid wants to be eating nasty additives!
4. Pick your battles. If your kids are used to eating fast food, for example, it may be difficult to completely ban it. Instead, arm them with information about the environmental and health costs associated with fast food and work out an agreement to reduce the number of fast-food meals you eat. Choose your battles wisely, focus on raising awareness and keep a positive attitude. (As with all parenting issues!)
5. Enjoy treats. Eating one or two cupcakes for a friend’s birthday isn’t going to result in massive weight gain. What your kids eat over time is what counts. When my son was younger, we would go to McDonalds once a month — a big treat for him. Keeping cookies and candy as “forbidden foods” will only make them more appealing, so try eating these less healthy foods just occasionally.
6. Be a great role model. Actions really do speak far louder than words. If your kids see you constantly snacking on unhealthy foods, or pursuing one crash diet after another, they will assume that this kind of behavior is normal. Kids often mimic the behavior of their parents and caregivers, so make sure you are sending the right food message.
7. Don’t be a short-order cook. I remember visiting my sister and her two toddlers several years ago, and was horrified when the eldest rejected the first two dinners her mother prepared. Only at the third attempt did Catharine agree to eat her meal. Aside from learning that she could get her mom to do whatever she wanted, my niece was denied the pleasure of trying new foods.
And don’t fall for this one: as a fifth grade teacher, I had a severely overweight boy in my class. I was horrified to notice one day that his lunch consisted of Snickers bars. When I called his mom to let her know, she assured me that her son was allergic to vegetables, and that chocolate was one of the few things he could tolerate. How on earth did he make her believe that one?
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