Helping Kids Maintain a Healthy Body Weight: A Cheat Sheet for Success

Reviewed by Sharon Denny, MS, RDN
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To help your children maintain a healthy body weight, consider the following quick and easy-to-do nutrition prescriptions for good health.

Include fruits and vegetables in meals and snacks. Most children need at least 1½ cups of fruit and 2 cups of vegetables a day. Kids like the sweet taste of fruit, so make fruit "fun" by serving frozen grapes, melon kebabs, blueberry pancakes and strawberry topped frozen yogurt. Meanwhile, most kids dislike bitter or strong flavored veggies so keep it simple by serving steamed broccoli or cauliflower. Finally, expand the raw veggies and dip choices by steaming green beans and zucchini and serving them cold along with baby carrots, celery and cucumbers.

Eat breakfast. Go beyond cereal and milk and try a breakfast burrito made with a scrambled egg, cheese and salsa wrapped in a flour tortilla. Also, teach kids to use the blender to make their own breakfast smoothie or serve a yogurt bar with plain or vanilla-flavored yogurt. Add toppings like granola, dried fruit and nuts.

Eat three servings of low-fat dairy foods. Choosing low-fat dairy foods can help children maintain a healthy body weight while providing bone-building calcium. Make low-fat milk the beverage of choice with meals and save soft drinks for special occasions. Low-fat flavored milks have a bit more sugar than plain milk, but still contain the healthy nutrients of unflavored milk. As an alternative to high-fat sour cream, try using low-fat plain yogurt on baked potatoes or spicy nachos.

Be physically active. It's important for children to stay physically fit. Get your kids dancing by playing their favorite music and dance along. Consider checking out the local YMCA for kid-friendly activities. Plan family activities that get everyone moving like biking, after dinner walks, basketball or soccer at the park. Finally, expand their video game choices by including active games that promote balance and fitness instead of sitting and only using their thumbs.

Control portions. It's easy for portion sizes to spiral out of control, so keep portions in check by using common items to estimate. For example, a tennis ball is about one cup of cooked pasta or rice and a DVD is about the size of one waffle or pancake.  Use smaller plates and keep portions smaller for kid-sized appetites. Finally, be aware that a 1 cup (8-ounce) beverage is a healthy portion size, but many beverages come in 2 cups (16 ounces) or more servings per bottle or can.

Make mealtime family time. Eat meals together as often as possible, including setting a goal of eating at least one meal together each day. Avoid distractions during mealtimes by turning off the television and use this time to teach your children table manners, such as using a napkin, how to cut meat and having a conversation about their day.

Involve your children in food choices. Making children a part of the meal planning process will help them think responsibly about their eating habits. Planning menus as a family and getting your child's input is a good start. Integrate kitchen duties as a part of your child's household chores by getting them involved in food preparation as well as clean up. Finally, teach your children to cook; if your cooking skills are lacking, take a cooking class with your son or daughter.

Don’t forbid foods or use food as a reward. Forbidding foods only increases a child’s desire for that food. Instead of saying no to your child’s favorite food, limit the portion size. Remember, parents do need to exert some control over what and when a child eats — overly permissive eating, such as snacking all day, can lead to obesity.

Limit screen time. Watching television, sitting in front of the computer and playing inactive video games are passive activities and can lead to an unhealthy body weight. Evaluate how much time your child spends playing video games and is in front of the screen, and cut back by 30 minutes each day until you reach an agreed upon time for gaming, television and computer use..

Provide healthy snack foods. Kids like to snack but keep the portions small. Whole grains, fruit and low-fat dairy foods make great snacks.

Reduce high-fat food consumption. Diets high in fat can lead to weight gain. Look for leaner meats, such as ground turkey breast instead of ground turkey or ground round or sirloin instead of ground chuck. Lower the hidden fat in dairy foods by switching from whole milk to low-fat milk.

Be aware of sugar-sweetened beverages. Soft drinks, fruit punch and fruit drinks containadded sugars and a lot of extra calories. Move away from soft drinks and try homemade lemonade or iced tea with half the sugar as prepared drinks. Slice fresh oranges and drop them in a pitcher of cold water for a refreshing drink. Use flavored waters (raspberry, lemon-lime and cherry) with zero calories.

Eat out responsibly. When dining at a restaurant, choose simple food items for your children — plain hamburgers, cheeseburgers or cheese pizza — in order to keep the calories in check. Look for new options on the children’s menu such as grilled chicken wrap, carrots with dip or fruit. If you order take out or home delivery, remember that you can add to the meal by serving a glass of low-fat milk or adding a side salad.

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