March is National Nutrition Month, when the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reminds everyone to return to the basics of healthy eating. It is also the time of year when the Academy celebrates expertise of registered dietitian nutritionists as the food and nutrition experts.
If meal time discussions center on weight management, it's time to drop negative talk in favor of something more positive. Focusing on weight often backfires, leading both young children and teens to feelings of guilt, insecurities about their bodies, sneaking food and disordered eating, explains Kristi King, MPH, RDN, CNSC, LD, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Instead, it's more effective to talk about the taste and healthfulness of foods, says Angie Hasemann, RD, CSP, weight management dietitian at the University of Virginia Children's Hospital. A healthy diet and lifestyle affects mood, energy levels, athletic performance and school performance – and reduces the risk of illness. Talking about these positive things is more fun too, she adds.
Here are a few ways to help your kids develop body-positive attitudes and healthful behaviors.
Teach What Healthy Eating Is and Isn't
Obsessing about calories, carbs, fats or any nutrient is not healthy eating. It makes meals stressful and unpleasant, the opposite of what every kid and adult deserve. Teaching that a healthful dinner has half of the plate full of fruits and vegetables and is eaten at a dinner table each night sets your children up for a healthy future, Hasemann explains. Offering a variety of foods at regular meal and snack times is another positive step.
Make Food Fun
Get kids of all ages into the kitchen. From washing apples to slicing veggies and stirring hot pots, there are food preparation and cooking chores suitable for every child. For fun, have "Try it Tuesdays," suggests King, in which every Tuesday your children get to choose a new food. Or have theme nights such as Meatless Mondays or a trip around the globe. Get little kids excited by giving foods fun names, such as green monster juice and ants on a log.
Be a Role Model
If your eating habits are not the ones you want your children to copy, now is a great time to make some improvements, suggests King. Model a healthy attitude about your body image, too. If you always complain about your weight or call certain foods bad foods, your children will learn to do the same. If you follow fad diets, they'll learn that restrictive eating is more important than balanced, healthful eating.
Put Weight into Perspective
You cannot get a full story by looking at weight or a single number on a growth chart, Hasemann says. Remember that children's bodies change quite a bit as they grow. "Behavior speaks louder than appearance," she adds. "Tell me if the child is eating three meals per day, drinking plenty of water and getting the fruits and veggies the body craves. Tell me if the child is active and moves to the point of sweating daily. Those are much better markers of health than a single number on a scale or a point on a chart."
Take Your Concerns to a Professional
If you're concerned about your child' weight, diet or attitude about his or her body, talk with your child's healthcare provider. Also schedule an appointment with a registered dietitian nutritionist who will assess your family's diet and help you make appropriate changes that will meet the needs of all family members.