It’s well-known that childhood obesity is an epidemic in the U.S., but with easier access to junk food, more time spent snacking, and less time being active, the COVID-19 pandemic has only worsened the problem.
An April 2020 study in the journal Obesity, which looked at children in Italy under lockdown in March and April, found that kids were eating more junk food, drinking sugary drinks, and moving less—about two hours less a week.
Now, ten months into the pandemic and experts say, we can no longer shrug off kids’ weight gain and sedentary behavior as a temporary issue.
According to a recent article in CNN, Drs. Edith Bracho-Sanchez and John Rausch write:
“Pediatricians like us have seen it over and over again in the last few months— kids who have put on 5, sometimes 10, at times even 20 pounds—since the onset of the pandemic.
In a year filled with so much tragedy and suffering, it would be easy to dismiss a few extra pounds in a child or to think of weight gain as a problem to be solved once the pandemic recedes. But the weight gain we are seeing in kids is neither trivial nor can it wait.”
POOR NUTRITION AND SEDENTARY BEHAVIORS
Although some schools have re-opened for hybrid or in-person learning, and some kids have started sports and activities again, there’s no doubt most kids are moving less and eating more than they were pre-pandemic.
The USDA has extended free school meals to children through the 2020-21 school year, which is important for an estimated 50 million families facing food insecurity.
Fruits and vegetables are being served, but the main meal isn’t necessarily healthy.
Take my children’s school district.
Pre-pandemic, the menu wasn’t particularly nutritious, but with less money, the options include items like hamburgers, chicken tenders, or a combination of items like string cheese, graham crackers, and frozen strawberries.
HOW TO COMBAT KID’S WEIGHT GAIN DURING COVID-19
Weight gain and sedentary behaviors have certainly been top of mind in our family.
My kids have been in-person, on hybrid and full distance learning models throughout the school year, but with more time at home, they’re often eating more and moving less.
As a working mom, I admit that I often rely on TV to keep them occupied and quiet during my phone calls. Plus, without sports or play dates, and the cold weather, they watch way more TV than I would usually allow them to.
If you, too, are concerned about your child’s weight during COVID-19 and beyond, here are some ideas to consider.
One of the silver linings to the pandemic is that 73% of families with school-aged kids are eating breakfast together, an August 2020 survey found.
Your kids may not feel hungry in the morning but when it comes to preventing weight gain, breakfast really is the most important meal of the day.
In fact, according to a March 2016 study in the journal Pediatric Obesity, kids who ate breakfast at school, even if they already had breakfast at home, were less likely to be overweight or obese than those who didn’t eat breakfast at all.
Related: 25 Healthy Breakfast Ideas for Kids
It’s no surprise that COVID-19 has led to disrupted sleep schedules and sleep issues for everyone and kids are not immune.
According to a September 2020 study in the Journal of Sleep Research, approximately 30% of moms say the pandemic has had a negative effect on their child’s sleep quality and has decreased the amount of time they sleep.
When kids are sleep-deprived, the hormones that affect appetite can get disrupted.
Ghrelin, “the hunger hormone” which tells our bodies to eat, ramps up, while leptin, a hormone that decreases appetite, slows down, making it more likely that your kids will overeat.
Therefore, getting a good night’s rest and sticking to a consistent sleep schedule is important for preventing kids’ weight gain.
With more time spent at home, it’s easier for kids to graze on snacks throughout the day or grab extra servings.
Doing your best to have a regular schedule of meals and snacks is a good idea, modeling healthy eating habits and perhaps teaching kids about healthy portions is a great way to combat weight gain during COVID-19.
SHARE FAMILY MEALS
Research shows kids who share family meals consume more fruits and vegetables, and have a lower risk of childhood obesity, among other benefits.
With parents working from home and fewer after-school activities, the good news is that more families are prioritizing family meals.
According to a September 2020 survey by the FMI Foundation, 94% of U.S. adults say they’re cooking the same amount or more than they did before the pandemic started.
What’s more, 85% say they hope to eat family meals more often or the same amount as they did before the pandemic when we return to the “new normal.”
Related: 8 Ways To Enjoy Family Dinner
GET YOUR KIDS IN THE KITCHEN
Cooking with your kids, whether you’re making an entire meal, a side dish, or an appetizer is an effective way to prevent picky eating and encourage healthy eating habits, which can combat weight gain during COVID-19 and beyond.
Getting your child in the kitchen during the week may not be realistic, but it’s a great activity to do on the weekends.
The Kids Cook Real Food eCourse is a great place to start—here’s my honest review.
BE MINDFUL OF WEEKEND EATING
A few months ago, I found myself ordering take-out on Fridays more than ever because I didn’t have the energy to cook.
According to a November 2020 survey from the National Restaurant Association, 74% of millennials had ordered takeout or delivery for dinner the previous week.
Although ordering out can feel like a treat on the weekends and make your life easier, weekend eating can also contribute to weight gain.
While pizza on Fridays may not be a big deal, if you’re concerned about your child’s weight, it’s a good idea to be more mindful of all of the extras your kids are consuming through the weekend.
COMBAT EMOTIONAL EATING
There’s no doubt kids are experiencing boredom, stress and anxiety which can lead to overeating, mindless eating, and cravings for sugar, salty, and fatty foods.
One of the best ways to help your kids with emotional eating is to model healthy eating habits yourself.
Eat regular meals and snacks, sit down when you eat, and eat mindfully.
Take frequent breaks throughout the day and step away from the computer and encourage your kids to get outside during their breaks.
You may also consider talking to your kids about their hunger cues and eating for hunger—not for other reasons.
Also, carve out time to relax, decompress, and deal with tough emotions, and help your kids do the same.
This could be as simple as taking a walk around the neighborhood, reading together, journaling, watching funny videos, learning how to do box breathing, or trying progressive muscle relaxation.
FIND INDOOR MOVEMENT ACTIVITIES
In combination with healthy eating, one of the best ways to combat a child’s weight gain during COVID-19 is to get your kids moving.
It can be tough to encourage them to play outside especially if they’re on distance learning.
Yet whether you suit them up with quality winter gear and get them outside or put on a kid-friendly movement video, there are always ways to get active.
When the weather is mild, I’ll take my kids for a bike ride or a walk in the neighborhood. Lately, it’s been too cold to go outside for long so my kids and I enjoy listening to music and having an indoor dance party.
Other ideas include:
- Tug of war
- Lawn games
- Pogo stick
- Bocce Ball
- Jump rope
- Bike riding
- Scooter riding
- Outdoor sports
- Obstacle courses
- Ice skating
- Activity-based apps or YouTube videos like Kidz Bop Kids