I was asked to offer some tips to help kids develop habits to maintain a healthy weight. Studies of healthy habits in kids show that the following habits are significantly associated with individuals who have and maintain a healthy weight. These healthy habits in kids can only begin with consistent modeling by their parents. Start with small changes to work toward these goals. Have fun. Persevere.
0 number of sweetened drinks to consume in a day
That’s not very much is it? Studies show that soda, juice, and even “sports drinks” consumption is significantly associated with unhealthy weight in children. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breastfeeding until age one year, whole milk until age two years, and low-fat milk (skim, 1% or 2%) after that. Water is great after six to nine months of age to include with milk. There is a big push to remove all sweetened drinks from kids’ diets. Kids with healthy weight tend to have NO significant intake of juice, soda, sweet tea, “sports drinks” or other sweetened beverages. Sugar triggers a reward center in the brain that quickly requires more and more intake to obtain the same feeling of reward. Interestingly, recent studies show that artificial sweeteners have the same brain effect causing an increased consumption of other sugars to trigger this “brain reward.” Water and low-fat milk. There is our first goal to work toward.
1 number of recommended hours of exercise per day
More than one hour is great, but gradually work toward one hour a day if you aren’t there yet. Kids need an example and often a partner to exercise. I define exercise for kids as body movement that increases their heart rate, gets them sweaty, and causes them to breathe harder. Standing on first base for half an hour in a Little League game often doesn’t cut it. Make exercise fun and build toward an hour a day.
2 maximum recommended number of hours of recreational screen time for kids per day
TV, videos, movies, games, computers, phone—screens are everywhere. For kids, as screen-time for entertainment increases so does the risk of unhealthy weight. It might be great, however, to use screen-time as a reward for meeting some of the goals mentioned here, especially exercise. Often the addiction fades as other fun activities like cooking and playing together begin to replace times of boredom that kids will fill with a screen.
3 number of small meals and small snacks to have each day
The trick here is to not get hungry. In most of our diets hunger is followed by over eating. Six small feeding times a day is associated with healthier weight when the focus is on fruits, vegetables, nuts and lean meats. Eating fewer carbs is almost always a good path to follow. Make breakfast a priority. Skipping breakfast leads to storage of the rest of the day’s nutrients as fat. Eat breakfast daily and try to continue the day with small snacks and meals to avoid hunger and avoid the increased calorie intake that often follows hunger.
4 minimum number of meals to prepare together and eat together as a family per week
Try to find small tasks for your kids to perform in meal preparation. Having a hand in meal prep leads to an increased willingness in kids to taste new things. When they have had a part in making the meal, they are much more likely to try those nasty Brussels sprouts you have wanted them to eat. Try to make mealtime fun. A game of “Would You Rather” or conversation starter cards might be a fun way for a family not used to eating together at the table to begin.
5 number of servings of fruits and vegetables per day
A serving of fruit or veggies for kids is the size of the individual child’s fist. This is a hard one for some kids. It is hardest for those kids whose parents don’t like fruits or vegetables. Get creative here. I don’t believe in tricking kids. Don’t lie to them about what they are eating. Join in the fun with them. An apple slice with 2 blueberries for eyes stuck on with a dollop of yogurt—who wouldn’t want to bite Mr. Apple’s face off. A mom of one of my patients has her kids take a “No thank you bite” of new foods. A quick bite and a shriek of “No Thank You!” often does the trick to introduce a child to a new taste.
Please don’t make all these changes for your family at once. They may all hate you. Start small and gradually increase the change. Meet resistance with humor and perseverance. I encourage my patients to GAG which is our lingo for Get A Goal. We talk about their GAG and the steps they are taking to meet that goal. Don’t wish for healthy habits, plan for them.