We all want our children to grow up healthy and happy. Caring for them is our responsibility and although there is no such thing as perfect parenting, we can prioritize our efforts to help set them up for healthy behaviours when they are independent. Childhood obesity has become a growing concern with a 2016 study reporting that one in three Canadian children are either overweight or obese (1). Carrying excess weight is a known risk factor for a myriad of health problems and chronic disease. If you have a child with a higher trending weight, this may be of concern to you. But how do you talk to your kids about weight? Or do you? What is the right approach?
From a research perspective, and as dietitians, the answer is complicated. Children grow and develop for years before reaching adulthood. As a result, limiting their intake or putting them “on a diet” can be detrimental to their development, physical well-being as well as their mental and emotional well-being. The focus instead is on the quality of their diet.
10 Healthy Eating Tips for Kids:
- Encourage your child to try new foods by asking for their help in the kitchen. This allows them to take ownership of a meal and a job well done.
- Include them in meal planning, list making and grocery shopping. Ask them to pick one new fruit or vegetable to try each week.
- Make silly faces out of fruits and vegetables or serve with a fun dip. Try skewering foods on a stick for a “sandwich kabab”.
- Buy cool straws from the dollar store to encourage drinking milk and water instead of juice or soda.
- Make smoothies with spinach, frozen cauliflower and fruit and call it something funny like “green monster juice”.
- Use the internet to search up healthier alternatives to classic recipes like mac and cheese. Or simply find new snack ideas you haven’t tried before that incorporate fruits, vegetables and lean protein.
- Avoid screen use like television and iPad’s during meals and snacks to encourage mindful eating.
- Try using a bento box or colourful containers to send a lunch to school for your child. This promotes healthier eating and can decrease their frequency of trading lunches, purchasing fast food etc.
- Don’t be afraid to experiment with flavour! Kids surprise us in all kinds of ways and food is no different. With enough exposure to new flavours and textures, they will slowly adopt them into their normal diet.
- Try to eat meals together, for most families this translates into family dinner. Serve meals “family style” and allow children to serve themselves so they have more ownership of their meal.
The goal here is to stop the weight gain trend and allow the child to catch up to their weight by growing in height. This is very different from weight loss and more appropriate for children. This method also serves as encouragement for children to participate in the kitchen, meal preparation and grocery shopping. All healthy habits that will serve them well as they enter adulthood. Keep in mind that It’s not about the numbers, it’s really about lifestyle and habits.
This being said, change does take time. Nutrition and lifestyle goal-setting with kids takes a lot of patience and diligence from parents but it can be done! Each family and child is different and this is where a dietitian can help tailor a successful plan for you. Aside from the individualized food and activity goals that can be put in place, there are other more subtle ways in which we can help our kids. The language we use at home and the way we talk about ourselves can heavily influence how our children view themselves.
Building Positive Self-Esteem
Our weight, shape and size are partly related to our food and lifestyle choices. Since we currently live in a digital age where our image is worth more than it ever has been before, our weight, the food we eat and our self-worth are inextricably linked. We want our children to have a healthy sense of worth, which means a high self-esteem, positive body image and the ability to separate their bodies and appearance from their total identity. We cannot expect that our appearance will have nothing to do with how we identify, but the key is to ensure that it isn’t the only thing to define us and our kids.
Negative thoughts or comments like “I’ll get fat if I eat that bread” or “only have one slice of cake, you don’t want to gain too much winter weight” are all too common. We all do this to a degree, even though we know it’s negative. This is why it’s so important to address it, especially for those of us who have children. According to a study in JAMA Pediatrics “mothers and fathers who engaged in weight-related conversations had adolescents who were more likely to diet, use unhealthy weight control behaviors, and engage in binge eating” (2).
Language in Our Homes
One of the most basic ways to convey this message to our children is through the language we use in our homes. If you are worried about your child’s weight, you may be more tempted to make comments during meals and snacks. Keeping the tone light, non-judgmental and not focused on the body are good places to start. Focus instead on health, strength and qualities of foods instead of categorizing them into “good” and “bad”. See below for a few examples of common comments we can tweak to be more body positive.
|Commonly Spoken Phrases||Positive Alternative|
|“We’re not buying chips, they’re too fattening”||“Let’s save those for another time and try these crackers instead”|
|“You’re starting to get chubby, we need to get you into swimming again”||“It’s been a while since you’ve been swimming and I know how much you love it! Would you like to go this week?”|
|“You have to eat that celery, it’s good for you”||“Did you know that eating celery can actually help clean your teeth?! Let’s try putting some peanut butter inside or dipping it in hummus!”|
|“I can’t eat that, I’m on a diet”||“I’ll pass for now and have some more fruit” (or, enjoy what’s being offered in moderation)|
|“I’m going to be bad and have another piece of chocolate”||“Those chocolates are delicious, I think I’ll treat myself to another!”|
You can see from the positive alternatives that the language is focused on positive outcomes and interesting qualities of the food or activity. Leading the conversation away from a negative space is one of the best ways to ensure you are using weight-neutral and healthy language that will promote self-esteem and healthy habits.
The Bottom Line
Being concerned about your child’s health and weight is natural. Keep in mind though, that the ways in which that concern is expressed is critical to their success in achieving those health goals. Be patient and lead by example. We are our children’s most tangible role models so not only does leading by example help them, but it directly benefits our health too!
With time, these habits and changes to your language will become second nature for you and you’ll see the positive effects on the well-being of your children. At NutriProCan we work with many families who are overcoming picky eating, allergies and more. Our team of dietitians can help you plan a well-balanced diet for your whole family while taking into account the specific barriers to change that you face. Reach out to us at any time for a free 20-minute consultation to get started!
Contact us and learn how we can help you and your family!
- Common topics for our individual counselling include: Nutrition Education & Coaching for Parents, Breastfeeding & New Mothers, Growth & Development, Allergies & Intolerances, Picky Eating, and Nutrient Supplementation
- Our family packages are designed to help families eat better as a unit while meeting the diverse nutrition needs and time constraints that families face. Our goal is to help each member eat according to their individual needs while following simpler, time-saving and economical approaches to meal preparation. NutriProCan will optimize family meal planning to help busy parents with their own nutrition goals while supporting the children building a healthy food relationship.
Email firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more!