My son Sean came home from school one day and was listening to some of his music. He told me it was “bad” and I asked him why he was listening to it if it was “bad”. He then explained to me that “bad” is really good, that is “really cool and hip” (in parent language). The same analogy can be made for getting kids back on the right track for nutrition. I really think parents need to get away from the scare tactics that the media puts out about the rising rates and costs of childhood obesity and disease. The kids just aren’t listening to that. We as parents need to know the facts about what an unhealthy diet is for us as parents and our kids, but we need to be a little smarter about how we sell a healthy diet to our kids. Truly, if we really want them to listen and apply it to their lives and eventually their kid’s lives.
I do speak from experience and from the heart on this subject. I was overweight as a child, and two of our three kids were overweight as well. Not only do I know the health risks of kids’ obesity, I also know what it does to their confidence to carry around extra weight. They are an easy target for bullying and unkind kidding. Our oldest child Sean was a very picky eater. He didn’t touch one vegetable after the age of 5. We had food fights everynight at dinner with Sean. He eventually just consumed junk with the wages he earned at his job and his weight escalated while his confidence plummeted. Our youngest child Sammi was a different challenge. I didn’t have any junk food in our house but she would watch the cooking channel, whip up all types of pasta dishes for herself and ate the equivalent of 6-8 servings of buttery pasta right after school everyday. Yet Sammi, after eating those voluminous quantities of pasta, would always remark an hour later that she was hungry again. Almost every morning of 4th and 5th grade I drove Sammi, in tears, to school. She couldn’t find a pair of pants that fit her and she felt miserable.
If I could take away the pain my kids suffered when they were going through those miserable times in their lives, I would. Just like I hope the words I write in this blog will ring true with parents so they could help their kids with a food consumption problem.
Connecting the Farm with the Table
Kids connecting the dots of how their food is grown to what they are actually consuming on their plates is imperative. Food takes on an entirely different meaning when you realize that a small plant or animal was THEIR source of sustenance. And experiencing the source of a consumable before harvest crystallizes it all. Jan Swinton from Hometown Harvest (a subsidiary of Pathfinders RC & D) is making that connection. She was instrumental in overseeing the process of building a greenhouse that provides field trips for school children to understand where the source of their food came from AND was the source of fruits and vegetables in those children’s school lunch.
That is what it takes, the connection in the kid’s minds that what they eat actually didn’t get pulled out of thin air. I will never forget my daughter Sammi when I said we had to watch our budget a particular month, we had spent too much. She said innocently, “Well, just write a check and that will cover the budget crunch.” She didn’t get it and our kids don’t get the connection of where our food comes from. Michelle Obama launched a great initiative by growing a garden in the lawn of the White House, using it as an example of the food connection for kids. Kudos to Michelle for taking on a tough subject.
Technology is here to stay, so we as parents might as well get on board and use it to our advantage to influence our kids in a positive way. It’s a given that they gravitate toward the inane superstars that have no talent besides knowing how to maximize their exposure. I believe it’s our job to switch that focus to issues that really matter, like nutrition, all with the use of technology. You might start by taking pictures of simple but vital items like plants grown in our gardens to show a different kind of pride. THAT, not the Kardashians, is something truly worthwhile. I’m not asking for a large effort here. If you are super busy and don’t have time for a garden, just one plant will do.
But taking pics of a plant you and your child have nurtured, then taking pictures of the culinary dish you and your child created with the fruit of that plant and putting them side by side makes that connection. If this practice is considered “cool” in your household, that might start a trend with other families. After all, every young person wants to be “cool”. Wouldn’t it be a treat for you as a parent to see your child start a trend that catches fire? Imagine them sending pics of homegrown creations to others, maybe through a social media like Facebook or Pinterest, and their friends thought it was so hip they start to compete for the most “likes”!
Summertime and the Food is NOT easy
I remember summertime being THE biggest challenge for not only my family’s nutrition, but mine also. There are so many fun things you can do along with the usual activities your child has in his schedule. That is the rub. You can’t do all the fun activities like side or weekend trips to the St. Louis Zoo or the St. Louis Cardinals along with the activity du jour your kid is participating in without a little prior nutrition planning. When my kids were younger, we were either living at the ballfields, dance studio, horsebarn or taking one of those fun side or weekend trips. When we were newbies at this summertime frolicking, all of us grabbed a lot a junk to eat, whatever was fast and cheap, to get us through the day. I remember feeling lousy at the end of those summers. Yes, we all gained a couple of pounds, but I also know I didn’t feel my best, and neither did my kids. When I got smarter about my nutrition, I passed that info to them. When we were on the road, we brought a cooler along with healthy snacks and drinks.
We also started choosing fast food places that had healthy options. This strategy goes for working mothers or fathers too. If your child is at home while you are working, plan a week’s worth of healthy meals they can eat and prepare for themselves while you are working. Have them text you what they have created and make some cute comment. It will have the effect of empowering your child so they can make those healthy meals for themselves in the future.
Make the Meals Fit the Culture
Michelle Obama made a heroic effort to change the U.S. school lunch program. I know there has been a lot of media focus on those new lunches (See The Pros and Cons of the New School Meal Guidelines) but the thing I really took notice of was what School Lunches Look Like in 20 Countries Around the World. Compare the United States’ meals with other countries. I get the feeling there is a little more homemade lunch feel in most of the other countries, whereas the U.S. meals looks largely processed or fried with less green vegetables. That is what U.S. students are used to, in the lunchroom and the other 24 hours of the day. I just think we need to slowly get them tuned in to the healthy lunch idea, i.e adding a little greens, maybe fried at first. Again I will say that the idea is really good to switch to healthy lunches in the U.S., but really, instead of a switch, which has a simple on and off button, a SLOW transition from unhealthy to healthy lunches might have a longer term payoff. The lunch choices should also fit the regional culture, so the kids have some further buy-in. This diminishes the chances of “lunch rejection”, as is happening in a lot of our schools. Giving broader boundaries for a healthy lunch to the states and letting them figure out what particular healthy foods will be accepted for a particular region could also help.
“Hey Parents, the Kids are Watching You!”
One of the best ways to get your kid onboard with healthy eating is by you modeling that healthy behavior. That is, parents modeling the whole package: healthy eating, movement, recovery and purpose (see “The Game of Life”). If you aren’t currently modeling all of the healthy behavior perfectly, don’t despair. We are all work-in-progress and our kids give us more credit than they publicly own up to. Yours just need to know you are striving to live the healthy life you would want them to live.
Don’t Get Into Food Fights!
Do not make dinnertime a battleground for the test of wills between you and your kid regarding their food choices. Please learn from our mistake on this one. Our first child, Sean, was a strong-willed boy and dinnertime was not the relaxing, sharing time it should have been. I could aptly call those times: “The Vegetable Battles.” Sean shut down on vegetables at the age of 5. He was able to get enough nutrition from junk at school and his friend’s house after school to starve himself at the dinner table, thereby rejecting the healthy meals (especially vegetables) we had at night. Sean was smart enough to know he received the lion’s share of attention at the dinner table in those tense times; the girls just sat on the sidelines and listened. As a parent, a better approach would have been to introduce a little of the vegetables without saying much about it. If the vegetables were rejected at first, it would be re-introduced a couple of weeks later. Again, do it without too many words. That approach worked with both of our girls and they were healthy eaters from the beginning.
Plate size DOES Matter!
All you have to do is compare Grandmother’s dinner plates to our current plates and you will see a comparable difference. Grandmother’s plates look like our current salad plates. Add the plate difference to human’s size bias, that is: “essentially, we use background objects as a benchmark for estimated size “ (See Mindless Eating by Brian Wansink, Ph.D.) and you can see how we over serve ourselves food. As an experiment, I put two hamburgers, both exactly the same size (I know this for certain because these burgers were molded from Randy’s special infomercial burger mold he just purchased), on two different size plates.
You can see the burger on the larger plate looks smaller, but our eyes are deceived. You as a parent need to be aware of this when serving your family. Larger plates get filled in with larger amounts… and unnecessary calories! I recommend that you go to the store and look over the plate and bowl options and choose smaller sizes. It’s one of the simplest things you can do to cut down on your family’s food portions.
Make a Plan and Get Kids’ Buy-In
If your children either have a weight problem because of unhealthy eating habits or maybe they are thin, but yet undernourished, you need to develop a healthy eating plan they can live with. Have them listen to your meal plans ideas, let them write the grocery list with you, then hop in the car and have them shop with you. If they come up with a worthy item to purchase, discuss and encourage it if it is an improvement on the usual, even if not perfect. Involve them in cooking too when time allows. This will seal the deal for your kids actually taking ownership of the family (hopefully healthy) meal.
Wean Off the Junk
If you can see your kids are unhappy with themselves because of weight, don’t despair, just ask them to gradually cut back on either the junk food or the portion size that is causing the most problems. The biggest thing you have to remember is that it takes a while to develop those bad eating habits, so it will also take a long time to get back on the road to healthy eating. A great deal of patience is needed by your child. The major role you could take as a parent would be the official cheerleader. Compliment anytime you see your kid heading in the right direction, that is, eating better or moving more. All those little ‘atta girls/boys add up. Sammi and I joined “Curves” and played raquetball together to get a little more movement in her day. We also fixed healthy meals together for the family’s dinner. I will never forget those days. The most frustrating ones I’m sure for her because she was unhappy with her weight but the most memorable for me because those days were the foundation that she built upon into the healthy lifestyle she is addicted to today.
NEVER GIVE UP!
These are the most important words to take with you after reading this. I’m talking especially to those of you that are dealing with a child that has a weight issue and is miserable as a result. Keep modeling healthy behavior, fixing healthy meals together, doing athletic activities together and being your kid’s cheerleader. I know it will take a lot a patience but I also promise it is well worth it. One of the best Mommy moments of my life came about four years ago. Recall Sean and Sammi, our bookends that had a weight problem and were both absolutely miserable about it. Well about four years ago, when they had both ratcheted their weight to normal with healthy eating and exercise, we were walking in the mall at Christmas time. They both looked at me at the same time and thanked me for what I did for them to get them back to a healthy lifestyle. They said they couldn’t have done it without me. It made this Mom cry big tears of joy! So NEVER GIVE UP!
HERE’S A RECAP FOR KID’S “BAD” NUTRITION:
- Connect the Farm with the Table.
- Use Technology to your “parent” advantage.
- Plan ahead for healthy meals in the summertime.
- Make the meals fit the culture.
- You as a parent are your kid’s greatest role model.
- Don’t get into food fights!
- Serving size plates do matter.
- Make a meal plan and get the kid’s buy in.
- Wean the kids off the junk food.
- Never Give Up!
This is one of our 2011 spoof-on-a-Christmas-song Cards:”Fleece Knobby Dad”- from left to right: Sammi and Sean (front), Shannon, Randy (A/K/A Fleece Knobby Dad), Heliene (back).