Co-authored by Dayle Hayes, MS, RD, President of Nutrition for the Future, Inc.
Earlier this week, there was finally some good news in the fight against childhood obesity. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the obesity rate among children ages two to four from poor families fell in 19 states and U.S. territories over the past five years. This is the first major government report showing a consistent pattern of decline for low-income children -- the kids for whom obesity takes a particularly gruesome toll.
Make no mistake: this is an encouraging sign -- but not time to break out the cupcakes and cancel the gym membership. While the study cannot pinpoint one policy or program that led to this decline, what it does show us is that if child care centers, policymakers, and families all work together, we can slowly change the norms around how kids eat and live and begin to roll back obesity and obesity-related illness. So what can you, as a parent, do to help give your young child the best start possible?
It's easy to assume that if your child isn't eating organic steel cut oats with local blueberries for breakfast or munching on a spelt burrito with homegrown organic kale salad for lunch then you aren't doing your part.
Parenting is tough and it can be downright exhausting to keep up with latest nutrition research and the mountains of parenting advice. Gone are the days of an 'ole fashioned PB&J every day for lunch. Some schools are nut free and, with an epidemic of self-diagnosed gluten intolerance, even eating wheat bread has become a dietary no-no. Then there is the cute-food factor; Type in "lunch box ideas for kids" on Pinterest and you'll find hundreds, maybe thousands, of ways to use tortillas, wonton wrappers or pita bread to make lunch more tantalizing to your tot. We seem convinced that if we can just find the ideal recipe or presentation, our picky kids will suddenly love broccoli, kohlrabi, and edamame.
We are so focused on what we feed our children that we often miss the all-important how to feed them. Parenting blogs abound with theories on potty training (boot camp strategies, child-oriented approach, etc.) and nearly every parent seems to feel passionate about how they did it in 24 hours of less. Yet, if you ask most parents about their philosophy on feeding children, you get a blank stare. Unlike potty training or learning to read, we seem to think that raising competent, healthy eaters just happens, despite (or in spite of) our best efforts.
Feeding kids can be a source of family stress and even shame. If your child isn't eating a perfect diet, it may seem as though you have failed as a parent. Yes, it's true that parents can and do influence their children's eating habits. However, feeding our kids, like every other aspect of parenting, isn't about perfection. Like potty training and learning to read, supporting children so they can become capable and competent eaters does not happen overnight.
Ultimately, the key to getting the "how" of eating right is trust. Trust that they will eat when they are hungry -- and stop when they are full. Trust that they can learn to make choices that fuel and strengthen their bodies, even if it means they eat a few lollipops and bags of chips along the way. Trust that, with plenty of fun physical activity (aka play) and a wide variety of foods, children will grow into healthy bodies that are the right size and shape for them.
Eating well isn't about counting every calorie, gram of fat or tablespoon of vegetable consumed at every meal. It's about enjoying a wide variety of foods and beverages over the course of several days -- and being willing to gradually explore new foods and flavors. It is about learning where food comes from, how to prepare it simply and what are appropriate table manners.
Families, just like child care centers, are influential teachers -- and both must step up to those roles. Give your children access and opportunities to choose from a wide variety of whole foods, including lots of colorful fruits and vegetables, crunchy whole grains, lean proteins and dairy foods. Involve kids in food choice and preparation -- from what to buy and cook to setting the table. Be mindful of what and how you eat: sit a table for meals and snacks. Make mealtimes comfortable and conversational -- without pressure to eat specific amounts or to join the "clean plate club." Do you ever say "Just have a few more bites," or "Just try the peas. You'll like them!" or "You can't eat your cookie till you finish your broccoli"? Stop!
And remember that as you teach them and set an example, there's no need to obsess about doing food and nutrition perfectly. With some practice, attention and trust, you and your child can learn and grow healthy together. For at the end of the day, it doesn't take a CDC study to tell us that there is no exact recipe for perfect eating and healthy living -- just communities and families coming together and each supporting our children.