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The Perfect Diet for Kids Is No Diet at All

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Updated on May 15, 2013

In 1980, 7 percent of America’s 6- to 11-year-olds and just 5 percent of the country’s 12- to 19-year-olds were obese. Today, the number of obese American children aged 6 to 19 stands at a whopping 18 percent, and a third of American children and teens are classified as overweight. These statistics are sobering, but not insurmountable. Atlanta-based registered dietician Kristen Smith offers several ways you can establish healthy habits for your family—and not one of them involves putting kids on a diet.

Be a health role model. Smith says it’s imperative that parents set a good example for their children. “Many parents do not take into account the degree of impact they have on their child’s eating habits and self-esteem,” she says. Make positive habits feel like a team effort, rather than isolating unhealthy family members. Load up your own plate with leafy green vegetables, fresh fruits, seafood, nuts and whole grains, and watch your child naturally follow your lead.

Ditch the scales. Don’t focus on a certain number of pounds your child should weigh. “The focus on a child’s weight early in life can lead to detrimental self-image issues later in life,” Smith says. It’s not just teenage girls who struggle with confidence. New research shows that young children of both genders are developing body issues. Focus on positive changes like increased fitness levels and improved snacking habits, and the numbers on the scale will naturally fall in line.

Try the traffic light program. Do you need a creative, positive approach to nutrition? Smith loves the “traffic light program,” which groups food into green, yellow and red categories. “Children are encouraged to eat foods in the green category as much as they want, eat foods in the yellow category in moderation, and eat foods in the red category only rarely,” she explains. No food is ever off limits this way; some are just eaten more than others, which helps ward off the cravings traditional diets bring. Try grouping foods in your refrigerator and pantry this way—just make sure someone sneaky doesn’t move his favorite calorie bomb into the green area!

Make it a family effort. Including your child in the family’s healthy habits makes him feel a part of the solution, rather than having the changes imposed on him. Take your kid to the farmer’s market or grocery store and let him suggest nutritious foods to add to your cart. Involving kids in preparing nutritious food is also beneficial. Children love measuring ingredients, peeling vegetables and stirring mixtures, and they’re more likely to eat a dish they’ve helped create.

Get creative. Fast food packaged with cartoon character toys are designed to appeal to young appetites, but it’s time to jazz up the presentation of healthier options too, Smith says. She offers some fun snack ideas, such as a fish made of fruit and a flower made of vegetables, in her blog, 360 Family Nutrition.

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