We’re in the middle of an epidemic. You’ve heard it before, and I think you’ll hear it many more times: our kids are fat. Not just heavy, but obese. I’m not going to throw more statistics at you. They are out there, easy to find; google it if you’re interested. Let’s look instead at the main underlying causes: Kids are not moving as much; kids are not eating well; and kids are not spending quality time eating meals with their families, learning appropriate food-related behaviors.
Let’s look at each piece.
Kids aren’t moving enough.
All too often, kids are spending more time with the computer, video game or television (read: sitting) than with a ball or out in the yard. In our house, our kids get very little screen time. I try to find other ways to keep them entertained and/or distracted. This is a little more challenging as the kiddos are getting older, as their schoolwork is mostly on the computer/internet, and as we move (keeping in touch with old friends is generally via emails). I don’t think that the answer to boredom is a video (although, admittedly, sometimes the peace of mind that comes from the resulting quiet is quite alluring). My husband and I both exercise regularly. We make time for it, talk about it, and include our kids in it (e.g. include them on our softball team, have appropriate equipment for their use so they can enjoy sports, play games with them like Speedminton or catch, etc). We incorporate movement into our weekend plans. We encourage our kids to be active, signing them up for the sports teams they would like to join, or are interested in trying. By providing positive examples for regular movement, we are modeling the behavior we hope to see in our kids. Kids see you moving, kids will do the same. Families that move together, stay moving together. This can become a very enjoyable way to spend family time. And, as the kids grow, the type and difficulty of the sports you do together can progress. Sure, t-ball is entertaining for a 5 year old, but not so much for an adult. But keep that kid practicing, they will be your softball partner by the time they are in middle school.
On that same note, the other thing that kids will note is how much of a priority you are making to be healthful. If that is the first thing that slips when you are busy, they will note that, too, … and let it slip as well. Especially those of us that are the errand-runners of the family, so often when our task list gets lengthier, our time with our heart rate elevated gets shorter. Don’t let your Health Time fall off your to-do list just because you have a lot to do, or because one of your kiddos (big and little) fall ill. Prioritize it, talk about it, keep it forefront in your (and your family’s) minds; the more people know that it is important to you, the more they will hopefully enable you to keep your appointment(s) with the gym or yoga mat. Put it on your schedule, make workout dates with your friends, and make sure it is something you check off regularly from your list. And, just a hint, if you do it first thing, it is a lot easier to make sure it happens. I don’t know about the rest of you, but by afternoon, not only am I not in the mood to get a good sweat on, I also often get swamped with too many other things.
Kids aren’t eating well.
This is more than simply not eating their veggies. They are not eating appropriate amounts and/or types of foods. They snack instead of eat meals. Their sodium intake is absurdly high. Their intakes of fried and processed foods are through the roof. We are not giving our kids the nutrition they need to grow up to be healthy adults. We are not giving them the foods they need to grow strong, develop mentally, and flourish. In this sense, parents are failing their children. Proper nutrition is necessary for proper growth, maturation, and cognitive development.
What can you do about it? First, take time to make the food. I know you are busy. I know it can be challenging to meal plan and grocery shop. But. Having convenience and prepared foods or eating out every meal is not only expensive, but it is also less healthful than preparing the food yourself. You may not have had the luxury of studying nutrition at school, but a general Healthy Food Choice rules of thumb can be: 1) look for short ingredient lists wherein you can pronounce most if not all items; 2) shop the periphery of the store. That’s often where you will find fruits and veggies, fresh meats and low fat dairy. Think colorful; eating a variety of fruits and veggies in a bouquet of colors will bring more nutrients to your diet. 3) Whole grains. Again, look for shorter ingredient lists and as attractive as an idea 4-minute pasta might be, I promise you would get more bang for your buck if you get the REAL pasta (maybe even whole grain?), and grains like quinoa, farro, barley, and freekeh are worth exploring. (One of my favorite ways to prepare farro, thanks to Deb at Smitten Kitchen https://smittenkitchen.com/2013/07/one-pan-farro-with-tomatoes/). Why eat these grains? They are full of nutrients, fiber, and taste great too. They add color to the plate, and why not try new foods, right? Let’s teach our kids to be adventurous eaters! It can be daunting - and never-ending - to cook that many meals, but if you enlist your kids (and partner!), it will not only be more fun, it will also encourage everyone to eat what they have taken part in creating. Shared ownership of the result, right? Just be sure to share clean-up duty, too!
Kids aren’t learning appropriate food-related behaviors.
They eat meals in a rush, grabbing something quickly in a car. They don’t sit at a table with their family, enjoying the experience of the meal. Kids are being pushed to eat depending on what the clocks say and not when they feel hungry. As the young get older, we are teaching them to listen to social cues for their hunger, not to their own bodies: It’s noon, so therefore it must be time to eat. Or it’s a party so it’s time to eat. Younger children are still aware and listen to their body cues and ask to eat when they are feeling hungry; ok, they might not use the words ‘feed me’ but crying or acting crabby/hangry is a good sign that they need some refueling. It doesn’t matter to them that it is 10:00 a.m.; they want some lunch and they want it ten minutes ago. Instead of crabbing back at them, congratulate them for knowing how to listen to their body, and let them be involved with helping to create their snack. Healthful snacking is a part of a healthy diet, so why not start the food-choice lessons with smaller meals, before moving to the big family dinners.
Studies show eating together as a family is not just good for kids’ tummies (with healthier food choices), but is also an important part of their social development. Family dinners lead to improved behaviors, increased grade point averages, and better self-esteem…. And an increase in fruit and veggie consumption. All that and you get to hear about their days, too! You want your teen to talk to you? Family dinners. I know it sounds simplistic, but the more relatable you are, the more actual conversations (not lectures) you have with your kids, the more likely your kids will turn to you in times of stress or emotional upheaval rather than their peers.
The other bonus to eating regular family dinners is helping your kids learn proper social manners such as eating neatly and in a mannerly fashion (elbows off the table, anyone?), engaging conversation skills, technology how-tos (no phones, no ipads, no screens. Period), and even things as simple (or complicated) as setting the table and what fork to use for what food. Friends, these are life skills that your kids will really benefit from, and who better to teach them than you?
Life is busy right now. We all have too much on our plates. When we live overseas, it’s a little easier because you’ll likely have people employed in your home to help with some of the household tasks. This frees a bit of your time so that you can spend it with your kids. Spend this extra time wisely; your kids are watching. It’s not our kids’ fault; they aren’t old enough to be responsible for their eating behaviors or food selections. This is another classic case of monkey see, monkey do. You can talk until you’re blue in the face; kids are going to do what they see their parents and loved ones do. So what’s the thing to do? Be a good example. Be the monkey you want your kid to be. This is a great time to take a hard and honest look at your own relationship with food and perhaps address issues you may have (and not want to pass on to your little ones). Remember, monkey see, monkey do, so let’s make sure our little monkeys are growing up healthy and eating well.