By Joanna Dolgoff, MD, Child Obesity Specialist for The Biggest Loser Author of Red Light, Green Light, Eat Right
Improving your child's diet does not have to be an arduous task. Little changes add up to big nutritional gains. Here are 10 quick and easy steps to makeover your child's diet and prevent weight gain.
1. Don't allow junk food in the house.
If it isn't in the house, your kids can't eat it. Or at least they will have a more difficult time getting their hands on it. Your first line of defense starts at the grocery store. Leave your kids at home when you are grocery shopping, if possible. Make a list before you leave your house and stick to it. Don't get distracted by the tempting treats in the market. Buy healthy snacks to keep at home and save the junk for when you are out and can't avoid it.
2. Don't let your kids drink their calories.
Many children lose weight simply by giving up sugary beverages. Parents greatly underestimate the number of calories and amount of sugar in what their kids are drinking. Did you know that one can of soda contains 10 teaspoons of sugar? You would never knowingly give your child that much sugar to drink! And juice is not much better. I think of juice as sugar water. Children do not need to drink juice for its vitamin C. They get plenty of vitamin C from other sources. Think about it. When was the last time you met somebody with scurvy? Replace these sugary drinks with water or flavored seltzers.
3. Bigger is not better.
These days, even kid-sized servings are humongous. Most children in my weight loss practice have gained weight from eating too much healthy food, not from eating all junky foods. Remember, all food (even healthy kinds) has calories and if you eat too many calories, you will gain weight. Be sure to serve your children appropriate portions of their meal. At a restaurant, share entrees or ask your waiter to pack part of your child's portion away before he starts to eat it. We all know how difficult food is to resist when it is sitting in front of you!
4. Everything in moderation.
Tell a child (or an adult) that she can't eat something and that is all she will want to eat. No food should be off limits. Banning foods leads to uncontrollable cravings. Instead, practice moderation. It is okay to eat ice cream as long as you save it for special occasions and limit it to an appropriate serving size.
5. Don't promote the “clean plate club.”
The best thing you can teach your children is to eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full. Do not push your kids to eat more than they need, even if you think they have not eaten enough. Our understanding of a proper portion size for a child is overinflated. Push your child to eat the amount you think they need and they will eventually get used to eating that much. And then who wins?
6. Go back to nature.
Processed foods, while more convenient, tend to contain more calories than more natural foods. Whenever possible, stick to foods in their purest forms. Fruits, vegetables, meats and grains should make up the bulk of your child's diet. Save the fast foods and processed foods for occasional treats. My rule of thumb: If you can’t easily pronounce all the ingredients on the food label, skip it!
7. Plan ahead.
A small amount of forethought can lead to large amounts of calorie savings. Once a week, sit down and plan the week’s meals. Make sure you have all the ingredients you need to avoid last minute runs to the grocery store. Pre-cook as much as you can over the weekend when you are less stressed. Then, when the weeknight madness arrives, your healthy meal is already prepped!
8. Promote fat-free or low-fat dairy products.
Kids need the calcium in dairy to help their bones grow normally. But regular dairy products are unhealthy because they contain saturated fat, which can cause heart disease. Try to avoid full-fat dairy products. Instead, give your kids low-fat or fat-free cheese, yogurt and milk. They won’t know the difference – but their hearts will!
9. If it's fried, don't eat it.
Teach your kids that fried foods are unhealthy and try to stay away from them whenever possible. In a restaurant, ask them to grill or bake your food instead of frying it. A great way to prevent cravings for fried food is to serve a healthier version at home. When my kids want fried chicken and french fries, I serve them chicken that has been breaded and then baked in the oven with “french fries” made from potatoes that have been baked to a crisp. They love it and it satisfies their cravings for fried foods.
10. Incorporate movement into your child's daily activities
While vigorous exercise is important, any increase in your child's movement is helpful. Encourage family walks and bike rides. Grab a ball and play some basketball. When going to a store, pick the worst parking spot so you have to walk further to get to your destination. Ban elevators; take the stairs instead.