If your preschool-aged child is overweight, you’ll probably need to make some adjustments in her diet. Rather than focusing primarily on cutting down on calories, for example, most of your attention should be placed on ensuring that she eats a variety of healthy foods each day. Make certain that she’s eating balanced meals served in portions that are appropriate for her age. (Restricting calories carries potential risks in a growing child, so you should do so only under the supervision of your pediatrician.)
Your entire family should show their support and join the effort to reshape your household’s nutrition. To help you make optimal food selections for your family, refer frequently to the information on the government’s MyPyramid Web site and information supplied by The American Academy of Pediatrics, these are guides, not prescriptions. Your overweight child and the rest of the family should try to balance their eating on a daily basis.
However, if your child or others in the family have a day when she’s eaten too much or has had too little physical activity, take a step back and say to yourself, “This was today; tomorrow’s a new day.” Variations in eating patterns and activity are inevitable. As you move your child and the rest of the family in the direction of healthier eating, you’ll also find that preschool youngsters have already developed clear food preferences, but that these preferences may change from one day to the next. Kids might gobble up a particular food one day, perhaps even ask for seconds—and then refuse to eat the same food the following day. They may insist on eating a specific food for several days in a row, and then push it away on the days that follow. Don’t make this kind of behavior a point of contention; it’s quite normal in preschoolers. Just be sure that your children are being given healthy choices at every meal. As a parent, your job is to provide your youngster with good nutritional options in the proper portions each day, then let your child decide whether to eat some or all of it, depending on how hungry she is or her preferences on that particular day. Don’t stop serving vegetables, for example, just because your child pushes them away during one or several meals. If you back away from preparing and giving her vegetables or anything else that might not be one of her favorites, you could eventually end up with a child who eats only peanut butter and french fries!
In choosing portion sizes, start by giving your overweight youngster modestly sized servings, and increase them only if she asks (and if your pediatrician approves, if your youngster is on a weight-loss program). Younger children in your family should be served smaller portion sizes than older siblings and parents. Meals and snacks should be structured, meaning that you should provide your youngster with appropriate portions and choices at appropriate times that fall in line with the family meal schedule. This type of structured eating helps children manage their hunger and reduces the likelihood of inappropriate snacking. On the other hand, if your child snacks or grazes all day long, she’ll probably cherry-pick her favorite foods during regular meals, rather than eating foods from all food groups.
Remember, meals don’t have to be elaborate to be nutritious and support a weight-control effort. You can prepare a healthy meal in minutes—a turkey sandwich, serving of peas or green beans, piece of fruit, and glass of milk. In fact, many young children prefer simple foods, so on days when you’re pressed for time, there’s no need to spend 45 minutes in the kitchen preparing dinner.
When it comes to snacks, don’t leave food out on the kitchen counter that your overweight child and siblings can grab whenever they want. Limit snacks to 2 per day, and provide your kids with healthy choices. Instead of candy or chips, offer them fruit, a slice of low-fat cheese, finger sandwiches, reduced-fat or natural peanut butter on crackers, 1 serving of dry cereal, a couple of low-fat oatmeal cookies, or a bran muffin. Desserts like cake and ice cream are fine occasionally, but not as a daily treat. By limiting, but not eliminating, the consumption of sweets, you’ll not only ensure that your family is eating a more nutritious diet today, but you’ll lay the groundwork for healthy eating habits that can last for the rest of your children’s lives.
Finally, cut down on your family’s visits to fast-food restaurants. Unless you’re very selective about what your children eat there, they can end up consuming more fat and calories than they do at home, sabotaging your efforts at promoting good nutrition and effective weight management. When you go, make an effort to choose healthy options like fruit and milk rather than fries and soda.