Today’s children should live longer, healthier lives than their parents. But the threat of lifelong obesity can undo that promise.
In fact, if current trends continue, approximately 57 percent of today's American kids will be obese by age 35, according to a recent study from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Researchers found a strong link between being overweight in childhood and struggling mightily with obesity later in life.
Even more troubling, once children become overweight, it is difficult to reverse the trend during their lifetimes, the researchers say.
Many factors contribute to childhood obesity. However, the seeds for obesity are really sown in the home, says Janet Bond Brill, a Hellertown, Pennsylvania-based registered dietitian.
For that reason, parents can play a key role in building lifelong habits that will keep children slim and healthy.
“You want to aim to foster a healthy relationship with food,” Brill says.
Following are nine rules that can help you teach children to eat healthfully for life.
1. Don’t use food as a reward or punishment
Too many well-intentioned parents use food as either a reward or a punishment, Brill says.
“It’s appalling to me,” she says. That’s because linking food to rewards and punishments causes children to associate eating with emotions, which can have negative consequences.
Brill believes you never should give children food for being good. Nor should you make children eat foods they don’t like when they’ve behaved badly.
2. Never force children to eat foods they don’t like
In fact, Brill urges parents not to force a child to munch on anything he or she doesn’t want to eat.
“I can’t tell you how many people have told me they won’t eat tomatoes because their parents made them eat tomatoes,” she says.
3. Ban junk food from the home
The foundation for developing good eating habits begins at home, Brill says. So, keep candies, sodas and other unhealthful foods out of your pantry and cupboards.
“Home is where the health is,” she says. “I never allowed junk food in my house.”
4. Set a good example
In addition to keeping such foods from children, set a good example by eating healthful foods.
“Children learn by both watching and doing, so parents have to be healthy role models,” Brill says.
5. Cook as often as you can
Typically, it’s also better to cook at home as often as possible. A night out at a restaurant should be an occasional treat, Brill says.
If you do go out to eat, let kids choose from the regular menu instead of the kids menu, which is likely to feature foods such as hot dogs that are “pretty much guaranteed to be unhealthy,” Brill says.
6. Bend the rules when necessary
If your child is a picky eater, get creative by making healthful foods more appealing – even if it means adding a dash of a less-than-healthy ingredient.
For example, instead of making fried French fries, bake the fries -- but then let your kids dip them in ketchup or some other sauce. If you’re trying to introduce children to steamed broccoli, add a blast of a light butter spray.
7. Get kids involved in cooking
One of the best ways to get kids interested in foods is to involve them in the cooking process.
“Make it fun,” Brill says. “We used to say kids shouldn’t play with food, but I don’t subscribe to that.”
8. Educate kids about good nutrition
One of the best ways to encourage kids to eat more healthfully is to teach them the importance of nutrition. If your child is an athlete, tell him or her that good nutrition fosters better performance, Brill says.
9. Don’t get crazy with concern
Are you at the end of your rope, hopeless and frustrated when trying to get your kids to eat better? Brill urges you to relax, even if your kids won’t eat any healthful foods.
“If they don’t, don’t worry about it – they’ll grow out of it,” she says.
The key is to keep trying and hope you stumble upon a few good foods they like.