Even the most well-meaning parents can contribute to unhealthy childhood weight gain, often without realizing it. One in five U.S. children between the ages of 6 and 19 are considered obese, defined as having a body mass index (BMI) at or above the 95th percentile. Diet and activity levels influence a child's weight, but his or her home environment can also contribute.
"When Mom and Dad are overweight or obese, there will likely be some unhealthy household factors," says Registered Dietitian Lauren Bell.
Childhood obesity has been linked to an increased risk of diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol, asthma and sleep apnea, so getting your child’s weight under control is important to his/her long-term health.
Bell helps us break down some of the biggest mealtime mistakes families make and offers ways to change bad dietary habits in order to lead a healthier lifestyle.
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Forcing kids to clean their plates
You may remember being a part of the esteemed "Clean Plate Club" growing up, but pressuring your young ones into polishing off a dish full of food may not be what's best for their waistlines.
Pressuring children to clean their plates may encourage eating past the point of fullness, which can become habitual. Offering a sweet reward for children who clean their plates may further increase the number of calories consumed in a single meal. Instead, ask your child to eat until he or she is satisfied, and lead by doing the same. It's a good idea to provide wholesome foods for your child to try, but do it without demanding or raising your voice.
Not preparing enough vegetables
When building a healthy meal, it's best to load half your plate with fruits and vegetables, which are typically low in calories.
According to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 9 in 10 children don't eat enough vegetables. Instead of swapping fruits and veggies for higher-calorie or less nutritious foods, Bell recommends making a variety of veggie selections. "Make sure there are always different options, so children aren't stuck at meal time only eating one vegetable," she says.
She also reminds us it can take a child up to 15 tries to decide whether or not he or she likes a food. Toddlers may need to sample a food 5 to 10 times, so keep offering veggies at every meal.
Eating meals in front of the television
After a long day of work and school, whipping up a quick meal and plopping in front of the television can be relaxing for parents and entertaining for kids, but it may not be what's healthiest for the whole family. TV is a real distraction, which can take your attention away from the food in front of you and cause you to overeat without realizing it. With your mind preoccupied, it's also likely you'll reach the end of your meal without feeling satisfied.
Practicing mindful eating, which includes noticing colors, smells, textures and flavors of your meal, can help prevent unintentional binges and may even promote weight loss. This way of eating may not be intuitive at first, but there are tips to help you get started.
- Eat your next meal in silence
- Set a 20-minute timer and use the entirety to eat a normal-sized meal
- Take smaller bites and chew each mouthful well
- Try eating with your non-dominant hand – it'll encourage you to slow things down
Bell also stresses the importance of sitting down for family meals. "If you're eating together, it helps the child see healthy behaviors, and you can see what the child is eating and how much." She adds: "It's also a good time to teach children about each food and how it affects their bodies."
Preparing too many high-calorie options
In the right quantity, most foods can be part of a healthy diet. When the family dinner table is loaded with high-calorie dishes or you stack your plate with large portions, you may see the number on the scale begin to rise.
"Mashed potatoes can be really great for you, but if you eat excessive amounts of it, it's not going to be a good thing," Bell says. "We don't really look at any food as a bad food, it's just how much you eat that can cause weight gain," she adds.
On a day when you’re serving homemade mashed potatoes or pasta – 220 and 240 calories per cooked cup, respectively – include several low-calorie dishes. Veggie-based sides, like roasted broccoli, riced cauliflower, zucchini spirals or sautéed mushrooms, are not typically calorie dense, but be mindful of how you're preparing them.
A cup of broccoli contains just 31 calories, but the 2 tablespoons of olive oil you drizzled on before roasting add 240. Instead, bake or sauté your vegetables in low-sodium broth, with just 14 calories per cup.
Accommodating unhealthy food requests
"Parents' lack of time and energy can lead to picking up fast food or letting kids eat TV dinners, which are normally not a very healthy choice," Bell says. Skipping a home-cooked meal every once in a while won’t send your bathroom scale into a frenzy, but accommodating all of your child's unhealthy meal requests can lead to house-wide weight gain.
When baked chicken breast and roasted veggies aren't a palatable option, whip up some of your takeout favorites at home. Top a small pita with no-sugar-added tomato sauce, a light sprinkle of mozzarella cheese and fresh vegetables for a guiltless Italian dinner. Or cube skinless chicken breast, coat with breadcrumbs and bake. Pair your (healthier) chicken nuggets with homemade baked fries, which save on excess oil and calories.
Depriving kids of the occasional treat
If a parent or guardian notices a child gaining weight or the young one is already overweight, restricting sweets and junk food may seem like the responsible thing to do. Unfortunately, it may not have the intended effect. "Children of parents who control their food too much can be kind of rebellious," Bell says. "They might experiment with a bunch of junk food outside of the household."
Restricting a child's intake of certain foods, especially eats they find particularly tasty, can actually increase their desire and consumption, according to a small study published in 2014. The research, which included 37 children, found that overly controlling mealtime practices can produce a negative outcome, especially among children with "lower inhibitory control," or a lesser ability to appropriately control his or her temperament.
Instead, make treats part of a healthy diet – in moderation. Offer your young one a sweet or salty snack on occasion and set a standout example by nourishing your own body with nutritious foods.