Hearts may be the top symbol of Valentine’s Day, but with high-calorie treats abounding at parties, the holiday can be anything but heart-healthy. With a little forethought, however, it isn’t hard to create a memorable event that shows kids how to have fun without overindulging (and maybe even get their hearts pumping, too)!

Why Be Concerned? Many parents take on the attitude to “let kids be kids” and not worry about what they consume on special occasions. Yet as all the holiday parties, birthday treats, and reward goodies pile up over the course of the year, so can the weight and the assumption that we need junk food to be happy. According to the Center for Disease Control, 16 percent of children are currently obese, and studies show that early weight problems can lead to diabetes and heart disease, even in childhood.

“Healthy children are more likely to become healthy adults, so it’s a great idea to start good habits at an early age,” says Jennifer Shu, M.D, a pediatrician and co-author of the book Food Fights: Winning the Nutritional Challenges of Parenthood Armed with Insight, Humor, and a Bottle of Ketchup.

Making Food Fun The bottom line, though, is that we all want our kids to enjoy themselves at parties. How can we make the refreshments fun without compromising their health?

Shu suggests that party organizers create sign-up sheets for parents wishing to donate so that items can be monitored. While it is fine to have one or two people bring in a traditional treat such as brownies or cupcakes, remaining parents can be asked to provide other foods.

Ruth Frechman, a registered dietician and a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, offers these suggestions as better choices for Valentine’s Day parties:

  • Fruit kabobs on straws
  • Heart-shaped Rice Krispie treats
  • Sugar-free red Jello cups
  • Oatmeal cookies with dried cherries or dried cranberries
  • Mini bagels with strawberry cream cheese
  • Mini muffins or slices of banana bread or other fruit bread

Both Frechman and Shu also recommend paying particular attention to beverages, especially sugary punch. Better alternatives include fat-free milk and water served in festive glasses.

Shift the Focus “Parties should focus on getting together with friends, not food,” states Frechman. “Food can be a part of a celebration, but it should not be the center of attention.”

Instead of sitting around eating for the majority of the time, go for activities that get kids excited and moving! If going out on the playground or to the gym is an option, consider putting a Valentine’s Day twist on some popular favorites. “Duck, Duck, Goose” can be turned into “Be, Be, Mine.” “Steal the Bacon” can be “Steal My Heart” with two teams vying to capture a heart-shaped object (a red ball will work too). If you’re limited to the classroom, consider musical chairs, hot potato (using a heart-shaped item or even a holiday stuffed animal), or maybe a beat-the-winter-blahs limbo contest. Jump ropes and inexpensive playground balls can be given as prizes instead of candy to encourage kids to continue to be active outside of school.

Another option is to hold the party at a place where kids can get some exercise. Look into activities such as bowling, ice skating, roller skating, mini golf, and laser tag.

Leaving with a Smile Has your kid ever come home from school with a Valentine’s Day bag that looked like he’d been trick-or-treating for hours? Whether you’re a party organizer or a parent being asked to help provide holiday items, consider passing on the lollipops and candy hearts in favor of stickers, pencils, notepads, and mini cans of Play-Doh. Another idea: Create take-home art-supply bags filled with felt, google-eyes, pipe cleaners, pom poms, foam stick-ons, and construction paper. Not only is such an option better for the heart (not to mention the teeth), the possibilities will encourage young imaginations to get their own workout!