September is Childhood Obesity Awareness Month, but healthy habits aren’t a once-a-year thing. We can make choices every day to improve the health of our kids and ourselves. Ellen Cernich, MS, RD, LDN, CDE is a Clinical Dietician in the Endocrine Wellness program at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh who works with families year-round to help them develop tools to make healthy changes.
What’s the best way to get kids to be healthy? Ellen says it starts with the caregivers. “Parents, grandparents, and other family members need to be the role models” Ellen says. “Kids rely on adults to bring nutritious food into the home.” Here are Ellen’s top tips:
Take your kids grocery shopping with you. Ask them what kinds of veggies and fruits they want to eat. They will be more likely to try it and eat it when they’re included in the shopping and meal planning process. “Parents have to be role models and make a good food environment,” Ellen says. “Kids rely on adults to put healthy foods in the house. There’s a time and place for treats, but most of the goodies we keep in the kitchen should be nutritious. Make the healthy food easily accessible.”
One easy food fix is to eliminate sugary drinks. “Getting rid of soda, juices, Kool-Aid, certain teas, and sports drinks is the easiest place to change.” Ellen says. Instead, water should be the go-to option.
Meal prep is a great way to eat well during the week. “A lot of families tell me they don’t have time to cook,” Ellen says, “so I encourage them to use a weekend or day off to plan even two or three meals for the week.” It doesn’t’ have to take hours, and kids can help too! It’s okay to use shortcuts: bagged broccoli is fine, and the crockpot is great! Making enough for leftovers means more nutritious meals throughout the week.
Budget is also an issue for many families, but eating well doesn’t mean breaking the bank. “Beans, like black beans or kidney beans, are cheap and good for you,” Ellen says. “Eat fruits and veggies that are in season, or buy frozen veggies. If you get canned produce, just rinse it before eating.” It’s important to get something colorful on your plate at every meal.
When and where you eat is just as important as what you eat. Don’t skip meals, and create structure around mealtime so kids understand the routine. Don’t eat in front of the TV or computer, and put the phone down when it is time to eat. Endless snacking throughout the day isn’t good either. Offer snacks at certain times. “There’s a difference between being hungry and just being bored. If your kid says he is hungry, offer some healthy snacks, like water or an apple,” Ellen advises. “And if he doesn’t want that, or something else wholesome, then no snack.”
For “picky eaters,” it’s all about patience. Keep introducing new foods for kids to try. “It takes multiple exposures to begin to like new things,” Ellen says. “So just keep putting it on their plates. Even if they say they don’t like it the first time, keep offering it. And lead by example.” Parents also shouldn’t be making separate meals if their kids complain about fruits and veggies. “Lots of parents will make a different meal for their kids because the kids complain. What you make is what is for dinner!” And don’t make dessert a reward for trying new foods. Dessert should be a special treat, not a nightly habit.
Read labels and follow portion sizes. It’s important to check labels for added sugar or high fat content so you can avoid them. Portion sizes can also cause trouble. It’s easy to serve up a big bowl of cereal, but a serving may be way less than you think. Pay attention to how much is in a serving so your kid doesn’t overeat.
Diet and nutrition play a big role in staying healthy, but so do adequate sleep, vigorous exercise, and limiting screen time.
About Endocrine Wellness
The mission of Endocrine Wellness is to help children in our region achieve and maintain a healthy weight and to prevent, identify and treat weight related problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
Fulfillment of this mission requires the involvement of a multidisciplinary team that includes physicians, nurses, nutritionists, exercise specialists, and behavioral specialists. Another mission is to advance research in childhood obesity and its comorbidities.
At Endocrine Wellness, the goal isn’t just to lose weight. “Many parents biggest concern is, ‘How much weight does my child need to lose to be healthy?’ but it’s not about losing a certain amount,” Ellen says. “We’re working with families to make long-term lifestyle choices.”