With more than one-third of children who are overweight or obese in the U.S., obesity and obesity-related chronic health conditions will be a lifelong reality for our children if we don’t do something about it now.
Although my kids are healthy, we have relatives on both sides of the family who are overweight or obese.
There’s also a strong family history of hypertension, high cholesterol, heart disease and stroke, insulin resistance, type-2 diabetes, anxiety, depression and mental illness, so taking steps to keep my kids healthy is one of my priorities as a parent.
Here’s a list of things I do to keep my kids healthy now and throughout their lives. One word of caution: these ideas are meant to inspire you, not make you feel like a failure.
1. I cook and eat with my kids
Cooking breakfast, lunch and dinner (yes, seriously), is perhaps the best way to keep my kids healthy.
I know exactly what goes into their meals and how the meals have been cooked and I can better control how much they eat than when we eat out.
I also cook with my kids, which has made them more likely to eat healthy and try new foods.
In fact, a November 2014 study in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease found kids who took cooking classes or cooked at home ate more fruits and vegetables, were more willing to try new foods, and had an increased confidence in their ability to prepare meals.
Studies show eating family meals together—something we do every night—is also positively associated with kids who eat healthy and maintain a healthy weight.
2. I serve vegetables at most meals and snacks
Look in my refrigerator and you’ll find plenty of vegetables: broccoli, cucumber, celery, peppers, asparagus, and salad.
Veggies have filling fiber that satisfy kids’ hunger, balance their blood sugar, and take up space in their bellies to keep them feeling fuller longer.
Eating vegetables at every meal and snack is also one way to prevent them from gaining weight.
My kids eat salads and vegetables for lunch and dinner, they often have a fruit and vegetable smoothie for breakfast and munch on carrots and cucumbers for snacks, for example.
3. I watch their portion sizes
Although my kids eat a healthy diet, they often eat too much. They frequently ask for seconds or for fruit after dinner.
Fruit isn’t a big deal of course, but I try to teach them about portion sizes so they will learn healthy eating habits.
One way that helps them understand healthy portions is to encourage them to use a measuring bowl or cup.
When I allow them to have a packaged snack, I also talk to them about reading food labels. I explain the serving size and servings per container so they know how much they can eat and how much they have to save for another time.
4. I don’t buy a lot of processed, packaged foods
Crackers, cookies and granola bars are really easy and convenient, but most are high in calories, saturated fat, sodium, and sugar, all of which can negatively affect their health and lead to weight gain.
Many of the kid-friendly foods and snacks are mostly refined carbohydrates, which lack fiber, spike their blood sugar and increase their sugar cravings.
When my kids are allowed these snacks, they know it’s a treat and not something they’ll eat every day.
5. I read labels and watch sugar
Like most parents, I watch my kids’ intake of obvious sources of sugar like cookies and candy but sugar is sneaky and can show up in surprising places like cereal, yogurt and barbecue sauce too.
Kids should consume less than 25 grams of added sugars a day and with the new Nutrition Facts labels being rolled out this year, it will be easier than ever to decipher between natural and added sugars.
I make it a point to read labels and check the added sugars, but I’m also cognizant of natural sugars, which can be concentrated in foods like dried fruit, for example.
6. I get my kids moving
I’ll admit it: making sure my kids get the recommended 60 minutes of exercise every day is one area that’s challenging for me.
Between working full-time, school, homework, after-school activities and other obligations, it’s hard to carve out time.
Although it’s not ideal, my daughters take gymnastics class 1 to 2 times a week and then I find opportunities to get them up and moving.
For example, we’ll take a walk before dinner or go on a bike ride. When it’s raining or cold, we might play a game of Twister or have an indoor dance party.
7. I limit screen time
Much to my chagrin, my kids love the iPad just like every other kid in America. “I hate those iPads!” is something you’d hear me say if you were a fly on the wall.
Screen time makes my kids tired and irritable and they get addicted to it.
Studies also show too much screen time is linked to sedentary behaviors, which can lead to childhood obesity and other chronic health problems so I often set a timer and set limits.
In fact, a January 2014 study in the European Journal of Preventative Cardiology found teens who spent more than 2 hours a day behind a screen had a higher body mass index (BMI) as well as metabolic syndrome, a cluster of conditions that increases their risk for heart disease and stroke.
In August 2018, the American Heart Association released a scientific statement about the issue and strongly suggest parents limit all screen time to 1 to 2 hours a day.
8. I prioritize their sleep
Making sure your kids get enough sleep is just as important as eating healthy and exercise.
Without enough shut-eye, their hunger hormones can get all out of whack and make them more likely to reach for junk food and skip breakfast, one study found.
I do my best to make sure they’re in bed every night at the same time or within a half hour. If that means that our reading time is cut short, so be it. Sleep is too important.
9. I don’t serve juice and sugary beverages
Consuming fruit juice, soda, sports and energy drinks and sugar-sweetened beverages can easily spike a kid’s blood sugar and lead to weight gain.
According to a January 2018 review in Obesity Facts, 93 percent of studies found a positive association between sugar-sweetened beverages and obesity.
I let my kids have juice or lemonade for a special occasion like a friend’s birthday party, but otherwise they only drink water, homemade green smoothies or green juices.
10. I lead by example
I eat healthy and exercise for my own health and well being but it’s a really important way to keep kids healthy.
Although they don’t always like that I leave every morning for the gym, they know that it makes me healthy and happy, which makes me a better mom.