Morning, noon and night there is a silent struggle in most American homes: meal time.
This struggle is one met with sighs, whines, cries and oh so many tears over the basic human function of eating.
Parents, we get it.
But we’re also here to remind you that anything worth doing is usually met with great fortitude. And enduring the valiant effort to ensure that your children get proper nutrition is, perhaps, one of the most important things you can do.
Children’s nutrition not only influences their growth, development, school performance, emotional health and peer relationships — it also predicts their future health outcomes.
“A child with optimal nutrition will have a greater likelihood of being a healthier kid and a healthier adult with dietary habits and skills across the lifespan that exponentially promote wellness, disease prevention and longevity,” says Christopher Schnell, RD, LD/N., a pediatric registered dietitian specialist at the Center for Child & Family Wellness, Florida Hospital for Children’s Healthy Weight and Wellness Program.
Maintaining a healthy weight can prevent a host of problems during childhood and beyond, as childhood obesity has been shown to increase the risk of asthma, type 2 diabetes, bone and joint problems, sleep apnea, and risk factors for heart disease. In addition, childhood obesity takes an emotional toll, with obese children at high risk for social isolation, depression and lower self-esteem.
Even more, children with obesity have a greater chance of carrying the disease into adulthood, which is further linked to serious conditions and diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and several types of cancer (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).
That said, we know you need help fighting the good fight.
What You Can Do
Here are Schnell’s tips to master meal time for your child’s health. You’ve got this.
1. Eat a Variety of “Whole Foods”
“The bulk of a child’s diet should include a wide variety of whole, fresh fruits and vegetables, lean proteins (chicken, turkey or fish), low-fat or nonfat dairy (or dairy alternatives), whole grains and limited portions of healthy fats (such as olive oil),” explains Schnell.
Encourage your kids to eat fresh foods or the healthiest packaged fruits and vegetables that offer the most essential nutrients, vitamins and minerals. Canned, frozen or packaged fruits and vegetables can also hold a lot of nutrients; however, it’s important to look for those packed in water and with no salt or sugar added.
Schnell shares the USDA’s daily nutritional guidelines from Myplate.gov for children ages 2 to 18, but it’s recommended to always discuss your child’s specific nutritional needs with his or her pediatrician or dietitian if you have specific questions and concerns.
- Fruit: 1-2 cups
- Vegetables: 1-3 cups
- Lean Protein: 2-6 ounces
- Grains: 3-8 ounces (at least half coming from whole grains)
- Dairy: 2-3 cups (low-fat or nonfat)
- Healthier Fats: 3-6 teaspoons (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat sources like olive oil, sunflower, canola, etc.)
2. Read Food Labels
“Check the main ingredients and read the nutrition labels of the foods that your children are eating, paying particular attention to sugar and sodium content,” advises Schnell.
He recommends staying away from ingredients that indicate trans fats, which commonly pop up in processed foods as partially hydrogenated oils. He also suggests keeping the sugar content to less than 10 grams per serving for foods with added sugars, and watching that sodium content per day does not exceed 2,300 milligrams, as general rules of thumb.
Unfortunately, the American Heart Association reports that the average child between the ages 2-19 eats more than 3,100 mg sodium per day, with grocery store and restaurant foods making up 83 percent of the sodium that children consume. This leads us to the next tip.
3. Plan and Prepare More Meals at Home
Schnell explains, “Preparing meals at home helps you to control more of the ingredients in your kids’ meals, and encourages more fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains.”
He suggests involving your children in your meal planning and prep, and starting small. If you are finding yourself in drive-through lines for fast food meals every night of the week, make a commitment to cook at home just one night and then increase to more from there. It’s also helpful to begin with simple, easy to follow recipes that are built around a lean protein and fresh veggies, with breads and gains added as a side and fruit for dessert.
Part of the planning process also involves grocery shopping. “I advise families to make only one weekly shopping trip, which motivates them to map out their meals in advance and stick to their game plan — This reduces the opportunity to splurge on the “extras” throughout the week,” adds Schnell.
4. Be Mindful
Teaching your kids to be mindful (or more present) while eating can go a long way. Sitting down at the dinner table as a family can eliminate distractions and put the focus back on the healthy foods on the table. It’s also important to turn off the TV, tablets and phones while eating. Research shows that when electronics are turned off, people tend to consumer smaller portions, have lower BMI’s and even have stronger family relationships.
“If kids learn to be more mindful when they eat, they may develop a healthier relationship with and appreciation for food — with a better understanding of what they are eating, why they are eating it, and how much they are eating,” notes Schnell.
This practice of eating together as a family also encourages conversation and bonding; it’s a more positive way to eat for mind, body and spirit.
5. Don’t Skip Meals
“Many kids, especially teens, tend to skip meals, which often causes them to binge eat unhealthier convenience foods when they feel extremely hungry,” says Schnell.
It also may create an opportunity for nutritional deficiencies. One study demonstrated that kids that missed lunches had more deficiencies in vitamins A, D, E, and K, in addition to several essential minerals. This study, published in April 2016 in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition Dietetics, showed that seven to 20 percent of children and adolescents in the United States skip lunch on a given day, with adolescents skipping this meal the most.
Encouraging your kids to pack enough nutritious foods to get them through their day and to eat all their meals along with healthy snacks can help them sustain adequate nutrition, blood sugar, energy levels, and a healthy weight over time.
6. Ask for Help
Sometimes, parents are at a loss. And, that’s OK. But the important thing to do is seek help if you are concerned about your child’s nutrition, weight, growth or development.
“The Florida Hospital for Children’s Healthy Weight and Wellness Program at the Center for Child & Family Wellness provides a multidisciplinary approach with clinical, dietary, exercise and wellness services for children usually age five and older who have been diagnosed as obese or overweight and referred to us by their pediatricians,” Schnell explains.
While he and his team passionately work to help children successfully regain and maintain a healthy weight, he comments that the greatest impact to reducing childhood overweight and obesity will come from parents who help their children prevent weight issues from the very beginning.
Schnell advises, “Even if your child’s weight is healthy, it’s important to talk to your child’s health care providers about their nutrition and know his/her BMI [Body Mass Index] percentile— Monitoring this important number will gauge markers for overweight or obesity so you can identify life or health changes that could be influencing your child’s weight and address them early.”
He further explains that for children, BMI is calculated as a percentile, which factors in where your child is on the growth chart for height and weight compared to other children of the same age and sex. Where in adults a BMI over 30 is considered clinically obese, for children, a BMI at or above the 85th percentile and below the 95th percentile indicates overweight, and a BMI at or above the 95th percentile, obese.
And as the U.S. continues to battle this burden with one in three kids and teens qualifying as overweight or obese, it has never been more important to take the reins by fighting for your child’s nutrition with healthy meal and lifestyle choices.
So, parents, keep forging on.
The meal time battle will be courageously won as you use these tips (and a lot of patience) to arm your little ones with the food and fuel to build strong, healthy bodies for lifelong health.