Westchester Registered Dietitian on Helping Kids Make Healthy Food Choices

Posted on: June 25, 2014

Empower Your Child to Eat Healthy…For Life


By Elisa Bremner

Family All Together At Christmas DinnerYour child loves ice cream (who doesn’t?). You love your child. So how do you limit junk food or sweets to help them maintain a healthy weight? In this age of sedentary video game play and easy availability of high-calorie snacks, the challenge for busy parents is finding practical ways to help kids make good food choices.

The good news is, there are many effective strategies you can use to set your child  on a lifelong path of healthy eating.  From toddlers to teens, it’s never too early…or too late.   Here are my top tips – all relatively easy to put into action:

The key to achieving and maintaining a healthy weight? Healthy habits. That means, if your child or teen is eating right and engaged in regular physical activity, chances are good that he or she will maintain a healthy weight.

Family Values
The single most important influence on a child’s eating habits is the example set by parents. Family meals are part of that. Research shows that a family meal can positively affect overall diet.  No time to make a big family feast? There are so many great shortcuts – like cut-up veggies and bagged salad. Frozen vegetables are an inexpensive and convenient way to boost the nutritional value of any meal. Throw them into soup or other prepared meal to cut the sodium content.

Your own eating habits are a powerful influence on your child or teen. Don’t say, “You have to eat this [insert healthful food item],” then skip meals or grab something unhealthy for yourself.  Eat the way you want your child to eat. Incredible as it may sound, they are paying attention! Making a family meal demonstrates your own commitment to eating well.  And be sure to model for your child how you limit your own consumption of processed foods. Engineered to be addictive, packaged snack foods are among the worst choices.

Keep healthy foods in the house – always visible and within easy reach. And careful, parents!  Don’t deem any foods off-limits. Absolute restriction does NOT work. It often backfires, with the forbidden food becoming even more desirable.  Instead, keep the emphasis on what good foods can do for you. Talk to your teen about how healthy snacks help them excel in sports. Talk about how nutritious foods tie in to academic performance, boosting your child’s ability to think.

Mindful Eating
Encourage your child to pay attention to how food makes them feel.  Help them  notice how a pint of Ben and Jerry’s gives them instant energy followed by a low that makes it hard to focus, while a whole food snack like apple with peanut butter provides lasting energy and improves concentration. The bottom line for motivating kids? Warning that “You’re going to get diabetes if you eat this way” is irrelevant to a 13-year-old. The here and now is the angle.

Social Support
But what about the inevitable — your teen is out with friends and doesn’t want to be only one not eating a Big Mac?  Ideally, align yourself with families who have similar values about healthy eating.  But by reinforcing the “why” of healthy eating, you can give your child the desire and confidence to make healthy choices even when their friends don’t.  Talk with your teen about his/her restaurant experience.  Good starting points: “What were the menu choices? Why did you choose what you did?” Make sure to validate his or her feelings of wanting to be part of the group. When appropriate, suggest they help their friends make better food choices. Empower your child to make decisions about where the group goes next time.

“You have a great opportunity! You have so much control over whether you feel great and stay healthy!”

Be Realistic
Keep in mind that normal weight is a range. Genetics play a role. Keep on top of those annual physical exams and your doctor can follow weight patterns, keeping you apprised of the risks.  One red flag is when your child has a sudden spike in weight and BMI (measure of body fat), although this is sometimes normal during early puberty. If you feel there’s cause for concern, it’s important to get an objective opinion.  Frequently, parents’ attitudes toward their own weight color how they view their child’s weight. If you want the family doctor to focus on weight, call the doctor in advance to express your concerns, and ask him or her to assess the situation and discuss weight in an objective, non-blaming way during the visit (if appropriate).

If your child is overweight, the key to preserving their self-esteem is to have an open discussion without judgment. Talk about why your child is making these food choices.  The next step can be seeing a Registered Dietitian together, or, if you feel it would be more productive, have your child see the dietitian alone.  It’s essential to find someone who empowers your child.  “Diet” is a way of  life, not temporary restriction.  To develop healthy habits, an eating plan must be realistic and sustainable.  The most effective message is, “You have a great opportunity! You have so much control over whether you feel great and stay healthy!”

Editor’s Note: Elisa Bremner, MS, Registered Dietitian at Northern Westchester Hospital.  Ms. Bremner holds Certificates of Training in Childhood and Adolescent Weight Management as well as in Prevention Strategies for Childhood Obesity.