Feeding our children well is one of our most important jobs as parents. Right after birth, we bring our baby to our breast to feed and bond with him; we build our daily schedules around our toddlers' and preschoolers' meals and snacks; and we beg our school-age children and adolescents to eat their lunches. We know that our children need to eat well to have energy, be healthy and grow. But what and how we feed our children can also lay the foundation for our children's lifelong feelings about themselves and their relationships with us and with food.
Feeding our children well means providing healthy foods in healthy amounts. But what are the right foods and the right amounts? We're constantly bombarded with conflicting messages about food. When our children are infants, toddlers and preschoolers, we worry that they may not be eating enough, we coax them to eat more, and we feel like good parents when they eat a lot; but when they're school-age and adolescents, we worry about their increasing appetite for fast food and junk food snacks, and we struggle to prevent them from becoming overweight or from developing eating disorders to stay fashion-model thin.
Why is this a problem
The U.S. Surgeon General has declared that childhood obesity is a national epidemic. The numbers of overweight children have more than doubled over the past 20 years. Currently, more than one in eight school-age children and adolescents are overweight. Studies show that at least half of obese children over age 6 become obese adults. They are more likely to become overweight if their parents are overweight due to the family's genetics, diet and exercise habits.
It's not a question of appearance, but a question of health. Overweight children are more likely to develop bone and joint problems, back pain, breathing problems, and lower self-esteem. They are also at higher risk for developing diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and even some cancers.
How can we promote healthy eating and weight
The keys to promoting our children's healthy physical development are healthy eating and exercise. Here are some basic tips:
Do you worry that your child is overweight
- Make mealtime relaxed and pleasurable: Try to have a nice conversation and focus on enjoying each other and the food. Try to avoid disciplining your children at meals, and don't withhold food as a punishment. A pleasant atmosphere makes mealtime healthier.
- Plan a balanced diet: Try to make more meals at home from fresh ingredients rather than eating out at fast-food restaurants which typically serve high-fat, high-calorie meals. Follow the "food pyramid" that shows that children and adults should eat mostly grains, fruits, and vegetables; and fewer fatty foods and sweets. For children age 2-6, recommendations are: 6 daily servings of grains (including cereal, rice, pasta, bread, tortillas), 3 servings of vegetables, 2 servings of fruits, 2 servings of the meat group (including poultry, fish, eggs, beans, and peanut butter), and 2 servings of milk products (including yogurt and cheese). After age 2, children can drink low-fat or non-fat milk.
- Offer reasonable portion sizes: Start with small portions on the plate. Young children can be intimidated by large portions. For a toddler, start with 1-2 tablespoons of each type of food. If she's still hungry afterwards, you can give her more. When eating out, try to avoid extra large or economy-size containers —even though you may think you're getting a good deal, it encourages overeating.
- Don't force your child to eat: If you give your baby a bottle, are you tempted to make her finish the last couple of ounces? Do you press older children to finish everything on their plate? Studies show that children's appetites naturally vary from day to day, and if you present them with healthy food choices they'll naturally eat what they need. When your baby shuts his mouth or turns away from the breast or bottle, or your toddler starts throwing food, those are signs that they're full. It's okay to gently encourage them to eat, but forcing them to eat creates mealtime battles and makes them lose touch with their natural ability to eat the right amount, which makes them more likely to overeat in the future. It's best to help children learn to recognize how their tummy feels when it's hungry and how it feels when it's full —and to stop eating when they're full.
- Keep junk food and soda out of the house: If there are sweets at home, it's tempting to eat them. Have healthy snacks on-hand at home such as fruit slices, raw vegetables with a low-fat yogurt dip, and low-fat cheese and crackers. Choose only 100% fruit juices and limit juice to 4-6 oz./day. Go out for sweets only occasionally.
- Limit TV viewing: Children who watch more than 1-2 hours of TV each day are more likely to be overweight. Don't put a TV in your child's room. Limit the time he watches TV, and don't let him snack in front of the TV because it encourages him to overeat.
- Encourage exercise every day: Exercise is the key to weight control, fitness, and overall health. Be a good role model and get the whole family on an exercise plan— walk, jog, dance, bike ride, play sports, jump rope, throw a ball, swim, etc. Try to build exercise into your family's daily activities, e.g., walking to school instead of driving or taking the bus; taking the stairs instead of elevators; and dancing to music as you clean the house. Instead of rewarding children with food, reward them with fun activities.
Babies come in all shapes and sizes, and there's usually no reason to worry about a chubby baby. Around 2-3 years old, children usually start slimming down naturally as they become more physically active. If you think your child might be overweight, ask your doctor to calculate and chart your child's height, weight, and body mass index (BMI) to show you whether your child is overweight. If so, be sure to work with your doctor on a plan for healthy weight control. The goal for overweight children is usually not to have them lose weight but rather to slow their weight gain—by healthy eating and exercising—as they grow taller so they can grow into their weight and reach a healthy weight for their height.
Remember, mealtimes are important for nurturing our children, getting to know each other, and having fun together. Make it a healthy experience, too.
Our parenting advice is given as suggestions only. We recommend you also consult your healthcare provider, and urge you to contact them immediately if your question is urgent or about a medical condition.