Nutrition and Kids

Nutrition & Kids: What’s a Parent to do?

When it comes to feeding kids, many parents are at a loss. Parents want to feed their kids well, but not be so hyper-focused on food and weight that disordered eating develops. There is so much information about nutrition and health flying around us that it is difficult to determine what is sound advice, what is hype, and what applies to children. Families are busy making it difficult finding time to shop, cook and be active.

Another factor contributing to the problem of taking care of ourselves, is the ‘toxic’ environment we live in. High calorie foods are readily available and affordable, advertisers pique children’s and our interest in foods that are typically not nutritionally dense, and budget cuts make physical education and after school activities a thing of the past. Top that off with our culture’s phobia of fat and the pressures to be thin, and its no wonder we find it difficult to eat and be active in a supportive way.

One thing we must keep in mind is that children model what parents do. This is especially true for younger kids. Taking good care of yourself, by eating to support your body’s needs and health, and moving for fun and having a strong self image, demonstrates a healthy foundation and models ways children can take care of themselves now and as they enter adulthood.

Parents may mistakenly view their children’s nutritional needs as those of a ‘mini-adult’. This is not so; children are growing and developing, so it is essential that their bodies get a variety of macro (carbohydrate, fat and protein) and micro (vitamins and minerals) nutrients. Nutrition doesn’t have to be rocket science here. However, some basic principals of balanced eating apply.

  • Eat a variety of food from different food groups and different foods within the groups to ensure a variety of vitamins and minerals are obtained.
  • Don’t eliminate any group or type of food, unless you can’t stand it or have allergies/intolerances to it. Otherwise you may run the risk of not getting enough of your micro-nutrients.
  • Listen to your body’s hunger and fullness signals. Eat when hungry, stop when comfortably full. Children are excellent at determining when and how hungry and full they are. In fact, we are born with this instinct. It is important for parents to trust their child’s signals and not force-feed or restrict. When parents try to force-feed children, children actually eat less. The opposite happens when a child’s intake is restricted. In this situation, the child eats more, often past the point where they are comfortably full. Children will sometimes hoard food or eat in secret if parents are too controlling with food
  • Eat some protein each day. Sources of protein include: poultry, fish, meat, eggs, dairy, soy, beans, nuts & seeds. Excess protein challenges the kidneys and bone health.
  • Include some fat in your diet every day. Some can be obtained by how food is prepared and by ‘treats’. So much concern about fat has led some of us to be too restrictive. Often people will take a low fat diet too far and we see deficiency problems. Reduced fat and non-fat products should not be used for children, especially young ones, as fat is necessary for brain and neural development. Keep in mind that eating is a balance and excess fat is not healthy for your heart.
  • Get complex carbohydrates in your diet by eating whole grains, beans, fruit and vegetables. There is quite a bit of fear now days about carbohydrates causing people to become fat. The bottom line is that if one eats more food than they need (regardless of what it is), their body will store the excess energy as fat. Carbohydrates are essential to fueling our brain and muscles. Carbohydrates give us the energy we need to be active, play and think.
  • Calcium rich foodsare essential for good bone health. It is recommended that children get 2-3 servings a day. More foods are being fortified with calcium, which can be helpful for those who cannot tolerate dairy products.
  • Eat some produceFruit and vegetables have many different vitamins and minerals that are essential to growth and development. Eat the ones you like and try experimenting with others.
  • Take pleasure in eating. Enjoy your food and the eating experience.
  • Be sure to include some ‘fun foods’ or ‘treats’

Tips on Eating/Feeding

Parents can teach eating well balanced meals. Parents may need to examine their own eating habits. (If kids are ‘picky’ eaters or there is concern with disordered eating practices, consult with a registered dietitian (RD) who specializes in working with kids who have feeding and eating problems)

Delineate who’s in charge of what:

  • It is important to delineate responsibilities:Parents are in charge of serving meals & snacks that contain a variety of foods at a regular time
  • Kids are in charge of what, how much and whether to eat
  • Kids know when they are hungry & full, let them trust their body’s signals
  • Let kids take part in ‘fun’ foods or ‘treats’ regardless of their body size.
  • Don’t restrict kids, put them on diets or pressure them to lose weight. This leads to binge and ‘secretive’ eating and ultimately further weight gain
  • Don’t use food as a reward or punishment

Tips on Activity

Encourage activity for health, socialization and fun. See if you can incorporate physical activity as a part of your life. A strong healthy body contributes to feeling healthy, confident and good self image.

  • Include family activities on weekends or vacations-walk the dog or walk to the market, play ball/frisbee, skate, bicycle, go to the park
  • Let kids participate in sports that they like. They may need to explore some options
  • Avoid too much ‘screen’ time by being aware of time spent watching TV and playing computer/video games. Get the TV out of the bedroom.
  • Don’t use exercise/activity as a chore or punishment
  • Walk to school and the store when possible

Tips on Attitude/Self Image

  • Examine the ways in which your beliefs, attitudes and behaviors about your own body and the bodies of others have been shaped by the forces of weightism and sexism.
  • Don’t reinforce the belief that weight/size is the most important aspect of a person. Don’t criticize your body or anyone else’s. Focus on the positive attributes of people not their size.
  • Don’t equate food/exercise with positive or negative behaviors, i.e. “I was bad today because I ate cake”, “I was good today because I went to the gym”.
  • Accept that Diets Don’t Work. Dieters actually end up gaining more weight in the long run. Additionally, it places guilt/shame on the dieter when s/he goes off of the diet, thereby affecting self esteem. Diets don’t allow for one to trust their hunger/fullness signals.
  • Challenge the thought that dieting or losing weight will lead to happiness or fulfillment.
  • Teach kids to be media literate. Discuss how advertisers try to sell things by making us feel inadequate. Double message: indulge in food, but don’t gain weight.
  • Don’t compare your child’s weight/size with anyone else’s.
  • Educate kids about the genetic basis of differences in body types and the ugliness of prejudice.
  • Give kids lots of love and attention. Feed their egos. Reassure them your love them no matter what their size or shape.

It’s more important to raise a healthy child than a thin one.

A Healthy Weight is:

  • determined by your lifestyle, not by a number on the scale, growth or BMI chart.
  • a weight where you can have food be part of your life, but not all of your life.
  • the weight that one’s body settles into with a balanced lifestyle, healthful eating, and regular physical activity.
  • a weight that is attainable and maintainable within a reasonably stable range without having to resort to heroic efforts of restricting caloric intake or excessively exaggerating caloric expenditure.
  • a weight range that a person settles into while respecting natural appetites for food, movement, and rest; without using restrictive eating patterns, compulsive exercise, medications, or supplements to manage their weight.

Books For Parents and Care Providers

Berg, Frances. (2004).Underage & Overweight.  America’s Childhood Obesity Crisis-What Every Family Needs to Know

Costin, Carolyn. (1997). Your Dieting Daughter: Is She Dying for Attention?  New York: Brunner/Mazel.
Gaesser, Glenn. (2002). Big Fat Lies: The Truth about Your Weight and Your Health.
Herrin, Marcia. & Matsumoto, Nancy. (2002). The parent’s guide to childhood eating disorders.  New York: Holt.
Hirschman, Jane and Zaphiropoulos, Lela (1993).  Preventing Childhood Eating Problems: A Practical, Positive Approach to Raising Children Free of Food & Weight Conflicts.

Ikeda, Joanne & Nawarski, P. (1992). Am I fat? Helping young children accept differences in body size. Santa Cruz, CA: ETR Associates.

Satter, Ellyn (2000). Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense. Palo Alto, CA: Bull.

Satter, Ellyn. (1987).  How to get your kid to eat…but not too much. Palo Alto, CA: Bull.

Satter, Ellyn (1999). Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family. Madison, WI: Kelcy Press.

Waterhouse, Debra (1997). Like Mother, Like Daughter: Breaking Free from the Diet Trap.

 Books For Kids

Douglas, Ann and Douglas, Julie. (2002). Girl Zone Body Talk: The Straight Facts on Fitness, Nutrition & Feeling Great about Yourself.  Information to help girls ages 9-13 discover all the things that are perfect about them just the way they are.
Emery Normandi, Carol and Roark, Laurelee. (2001). Over It: A Teen’s Guide to Getting Beyond Obsessions with Food and Weight.   Written for teen boys & girls with food or weight problems.

Haduch, Bill (2001). Food Rules!  New York, NY: Puffin Books.  This is a fun book for kids to read about nutrition and how it works in their body. Elementary and Middle School age.

Mills, Andy and Osborn, Becky. (2003) Shapesville.  Adorable book that celebrates positive body image and diversity for kids ages 3-8.