What was your initial reaction when you realized that your child needed to control his weight? In that situation, many parents find themselves thinking, “I’ve got to put him on a diet.” After all, in a culture in which thinness seems to be the name of the game and Americans just can’t get their fill of diet books, you might instinctively think that the solution rests with the latest weight-loss fad, even though these diets are rarely designed with growing children or good nutrition in mind.
No matter what some diet gurus proclaim, calorie counting and exercising to the point of fatigue are not the answer, particularly for children. In fact, restricting calories in a growing child could pose risks to his health. You shouldn’t do so unless your pediatrician recommends and supervises those efforts.
So what’s the answer? Consistently good nutrition, meal after meal, is a foundation for a healthy childhood. Rather than becoming preoccupied with weightloss goals, you should focus instead on a wholesome lifestyle for everyone in your family, no matter what each member weighs. Establish some structure to your family’s eating—3 well-thought-out meals and 2 snacks a day. If you take steps to minimize the junk food in your family’s diet, eliminate sugared beverages like soft drinks, pay attention to portion sizes, and add some physical activity to the mix, your heavy child will grow up to have a healthy weight.
In preparing foods high in nutritional value, build the family meals around selections like:
Fresh fruits and vegetables
or nonfat dairy products like milk, yogurt, and cheeses
Lean and skinless meats including chicken, turkey, fish, and lean hamburger
The basics of good nutrition really aren’t that complicated. It means choosing low-fat turkey bologna instead of beef, or preparing a grilled chicken sandwich instead of a high-fat cheeseburger. Portion sizes at this age should be less than that of an adult-sized serving. Remember that when you’re in the kitchen, choose cooking methods that involve a minimal amount of fat, relying primarily on broiling, roasting, and steaming.
During the middle years of childhood, there are plenty of obstacles that can trip up your well-intentioned efforts at keeping your family eating right. In the mornings, as you’re rushing to get your child off to school, are there days when he doesn’t have the time to sit down for a nourishing breakfast? At school, does he sometimes make poor choices in the cafeteria or from vending machines?
As a parent, part of your responsibility is to find solutions for any stumbling blocks that arise. If the school cafeteria doesn’t offer many healthy choices or your child cannot be convinced to purchase healthy options (and in many elementary and middle schools, only one lunch entrée is provided), pack a healthy lunch for your child each day. You might prepare a turkey sandwich on multigrain or pita bread. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich is fine, too. There are plenty of good selections, but stay away from pastrami, salami, and other high-fat lunch meats. Add a piece of fruit to your child’s lunch sack and perhaps a bag of pretzels. Pack a small water bottle for him, or give him money to buy low-fat milk in the cafeteria.
Once your child gets home from school, he might head straight for the cupboard or refrigerator and look for something to munch on. Have some healthy snacks for him to choose from—raw vegetables with nonfat dip, fresh fruit, whole-grain crackers, air-popped popcorn, unsalted pretzels, or baked tortillas with salsa. Keep the ice cream, cookies, and cakes out of reach—or better yet, out of the house altogether (reserve them for special occasions). If you don’t limit access to snack foods like these, you’re unfairly setting your child up for a losing battle against weight gain.
Meanwhile, stay alert for other potential stumbling blocks to healthy eating. For example, your school-aged child may sometimes exchange food with friends, giving up the sandwich and fruit that you’ve packed for him and trading them for a bag of potato chips. After school, if he’s spending time at a playmate’s home, he might be snacking there on candy rather than an apple. In short, even if you’ve done a good job of educating your child on making nutritious food choices, he’ll face plenty of temptations, almost on a daily basis.
Also remember that you’re a role model in this process, so make healthy food choices for yourself as well as the rest of the family. Even though school-aged children are busier than ever, make an effort to find time for family meals as often as possible. When all of you sit down at the dining room table together, it’s a perfect opportunity for every family member to describe his or her day and the family to grow closer.