Feeding Children: Palatable Strategies for Winning the Nutritional Challenges of Parenthood

Whether you’re an Omaha parent or the First Lady of the United States, it has become all too clear that childhood obesity is a large and growing problem that warrants it’s current spot at the top of our collective parenting priority lists (not to mention our country’s). Sure, there are some bigger-picture issues at stake here than whether or not you are successful in your attempts to get your child to eat green vegetables. And yes – it can easily seem like some of the root causes of the obesity epidemic fall far outside of our parental control – from the multi-billion dollar a year business of marketing unhealthy foods to children to the concerning inadequacies of lunch programs and drastically cut physical education activities in schools. In other words, we have our work cut out for us.

I remain convinced, however, that as parents, we all still have the ability to significantly shape our children’s eating habits, teach them an healthier approach to food, and ultimately impact their overall health and nutrition. I don’t hold any misperceptions about the fact that it will take quite a bit of parental effort and commitment. But it’s well worth the effort.

Okay, so I imagine that very few, if any, parents would disagree with me thus far. And there’s certainly a cornucopia of nutrition resources out there custom-designed to make it exceedingly easy to figure out exactly how much calcium or vitamin D your child needs in any given day, what types of fats to avoid, and even how to serve your child’s nutrition up on a proportionally pleasing plate.

The problem is that few things are harder than getting a child to open his mouth when he doesn’t want to. Instilling healthy eating habits in our children isn’t just about knowing what we should be serving our kids – an admittedly very important first step in the right direction – but figuring out how to get them to play along. In other words, it’s one thing to know what it is we’re supposed to be doing and feeding our children. It’s altogether another to know how to go about doing it.

And that’s why I want to share with you several of the ten overarching peacekeeping strategies my Food Fights co-author and I distilled in order to arm all parents with the skills and approaches necessary to wage war on the childhood obesity epidemic – one French fry, grocery store meltdown, or food refusal at a time.

  1. Don’t fight over food. Mealtime was never meant to be contentious, and no matter how much you commit yourself to instilling in your child healthy eating habits, vow never to turn the dinner table into a battlefield. In short, this means committing to some basic ground rules about how you’re going to approach food (including those listed below), and then applying them calmly and consistently.
  2. Never let them see you sweat. In other words, don’t let your child know just how much parental self-worth you have resting on whether or not he eats a bite of broccoli. Studies show that the more you blatantly “push” healthy foods, the more likely your child is to resist. Conversely, I might add, the more that foods are restricted, the more likely children are to want them (and eat more when given the chance). It’s simply your job to place healthy foods in front of your child, and your child’s job to decide how much to eat.
  3. Try, try…try, try again. If I were really to make this point, I would write out the word “try” ten to fifteen times to add greater emphasis to the number of times it can take for a child to try a new food before accepting it. I know it may seem a bit shocking. But once you understand that calmly offering new and healthy foods on a regular and repeated basis makes a very real difference, it is usually much easier to swallow the many predictable rejections. In particular, I like taking the low-key approach of teaching children to ask for “No thank you” bites. Children get to retain a sense of control, know that they will not be forced to eat, and you accomplish your goal of exposing them to new foods.
  4. Out of sight, out of mind. This may seem like stating the obvious, but when it comes to your child wanting, begging, and/or whining for unhealthy foods in lieu of healthier ones, let me remind you that it is under your complete control to regulate what foods come into your homes. If you don’t want your child begging for it, then don’t buy it. Of course trips to the grocery store, visits to the grandparents, and child care (all topics addressed in detail in Food Fights) can all pose more of a challenge and will require additional consideration.
  5. Eat by example. I would be remiss if I didn’t make the closing (and perhaps most important) point that all the nutrition resources, no thank you bites, and dietary directives in the world won’t stand nearly the chance they would otherwise if you don’t eat by the same principles. From the time you enter parenthood, your children will be watching you, and they’re far more likely to eat as you do than as you say.

With that said, I wish you and your entire family good health and a lifetime of “peas and homini!”

Originally posted on Omaha World Herald’s Live Well Nebraska

Raising Healthy Kids: Reaching for the Low-Hanging Fruit of Parenthood

For good or for bad, parents today are faced with the fast paced nature of both the real world and a virtual one. Much of the virtually continuous stream of information, videos, tweets and texts we receive on a 24/7 basis relate in one way or another to what we can, should, and/or are expected to do to be good parents. And let’s face it – keeping up with all of the modern-day parenting advice would be hard enough even if all of it was fact-checked for us. Unfortunately, this is not often the case, as much of what we hear, see and read is unfiltered, potentially unfounded, and confusingly contradictory.

Having spent much of my professional career as a pediatrician increasingly committed to making sense of pediatric and parenting advice in both of these worlds, I have found that what parents often want to know from me is simply how to filter the good from the bad and separate fact from fiction.

Knowing that you all are probably as busy as I am, I decided that this week I would distill down to as few words as possible the handful of things I consider to be some of the most well-founded, important things you can do as parents can do to make your kids smarter, safer and healthier. In other words, the following is my list of the “low-hanging fruit” of parenting.

Move more. I feel the need to say this because it’s painfully obvious that it has become incredibly easy for our children (and for us) to barely move in the course of any given day. Whether it’s walking instead of driving to school (or work) or taking an evening walk around the block, getting out of the car instead of rolling your way through drive-thrus, or signing up for organized sports, joining a gym, or participating in more vigorous daily exercise regimens – every step counts towards an healthier life style.

Use restraint. Literally speaking, I’m simply referring to the use of car seats and seat belts in motor vehicles. With motor vehicle crashes clearly identified as the number one cause of death in children, and the correct use of car seats and seatbelts clearly shown to have a huge impact on reducing motor vehicle-related injuries and deaths, taking the time to buckle up comes with a huge return on your parenting investment.

Read. For every parent who has ever asked my opinion on what they can do to help their children become smarter, excel in school, or head down a path of success, reading always factors in to my answer. Reading aloud to babies, toddlers, young children and teens alike not only fosters improved language skills, but also a love of reading that will serve children well for their lifetime. One of my favorite sayings to emphasize this point is that children spend the first few years of school learning to read, and the rest of their lives reading to learn.

Sleep. For parents of infants and young children, this conversation usually focuses on getting children to fall asleep, stay asleep, sleep in their own room, and do so without requiring repeated interventions. For parents of teens, the conversation often shifts to too little and too late. But regardless of your child’s age, it is becoming convincingly clear that instilling your child with good sleep habits is not only a good thing for your own chances of getting a good night’s sleep, but your child’s overall health and well-being.

Wash your hands…and while you’re at it, remember to cover your cough (preferably with your arm rather than your hand) and vaccinate. The fact of the matter is that while modern day science and research is continually coming up with new medicines, treatments and technologies to improve our families’ health and more effectively treat disease, the simple act of teaching our children to wash their hands (which includes committing to consistently doing so ourselves) remains one of the single most effective things we can do to limit the spread of disease. So is protecting against all of the vaccine preventable diseases.

Originally posted on Omaha World Herald’s Live Well Nebraska