One out of three kids in the U.S. is now overweight or obese. This is scary not only because of the long-term health problems these children will face, but also because the enjoyment of their childhood might be compromised by teasing, feeling bad about themselves, or not being able to be as active as their peers. Most parents of overweight children want desperately to help their kids achieve a healthy weight, but are unsure how to get started. Weight loss is a delicate topic for anyone, but especially for kids whose self images are perhaps already damaged, so it’s important to approach the subject in a way that makes your child feel supported, not criticized. Here are few tips for adults who want to help the children in their lives get healthy:
1. First, help silently. Before you ever say anything to your child about weight, make some changes to your home food environment that will encourage all family members to practice healthy habits. Only keep food around that you would want your child to eat (especially the veggies and fruits that your child likes), establish regular family eating routines (e.g. dinner together without TV or distraction), and get your child involved in the preparation of healthy meals and snacks. You’re the parent, so you’re in charge of what happens in your house!
2. Encourage your child to listen to his/her body signals. Here are some ways to do this without even talking about it:
- At mealtime, plate the food in the kitchen, as opposed to serving meals “family style,” so that people won’t help themselves to second or third helpings out of habit rather than hunger.
- Establish a “15 minute rule,” where all family members have to wait 15 minutes before having second helpings, to give the body time to recognize a sense of fullness. (During the 15 minutes of waiting, play a game or offer an entertaining question that everyone has to answer — this is a fun way to pass the time and forget you even wanted more food). After the 15 minutes, if you/your children are still hungry, help them get a small second portion.
- Create a family rule of second helpings on vegetables or fruits only, not the starchy and fattier parts of the meal.
- When your child asks for a snack or dessert, ask him if he’s really hungry or if he’s just bored and looking for something to do. If it’s the latter, suggest activities that he can do or you can do together (something active!).
3. Lose weight yourself. If you’re overweight or have unhealthy and irregular eating habits, it will really help your child if you work on healthy habits together. You don’t have to say anything like “let’s go on a diet together,” but rather slowly start practicing some of the habits listed above in your household — these will be helpful to everyone. The more you can model good eating and exercise habits, the better.
4. Get your spouse on board. If your significant other wants you to keep Cheetos and Coke around for him to snack on, it will be hard to set a good example for your children or prevent them from eating this junk too. Change is hard for everyone, but all the adults in the household have to be on board with making some lifestyle shifts for the sake of their children. No need to eliminate treats altogether, but better to let everyone indulge once in awhile outside the house so that you at least can offer a healthy food environment at home.
5. Avoid using foods as rewards or punishments. The days of saying “if you eat all of ___ , you can have dessert” are over. Using treat foods as rewards encourages weight gain, and using vegetables or other healthy foods as punishments discourages kids from liking healthy foods that they need to like in order to be healthy over their lifetime. Think of non-food ways to reward your child when she does something good, and try to avoid making her eat something she doesn’t want to.
6. Set limits. I can’t say this enough: YOU’RE IN CHARGE. This is your kitchen, these are your kids, and what happens under your roof is to a large extent under your control. So don’t be afraid to set rules like “one treat per day” or “one hour of TV per day” to hep keep your kids healthy.
7. Be a source of support for your child. Many overweight children have learned to comfort themselves with food. Growing up can be tough, and it’s sometimes hard for kids to find ways to express themselves. If you think your child might be eating for emotional reasons, make an effort to spend some time talking with him a little everyday in a safe, private environment where he’ll feel comfortable telling you about the stresses in his life. Helping your child establish healthy ways to deal with positive and negative emotions early in life will help him for years to come.
**image above taken from New York Times Well Blog post**