As parents, we all want to ensure that our children enjoy their childhood, whilst also learning some useful and important habits that will serve them well in adult life. Teaching kids about a varied, nutritious diet and an active lifestyle are valuable lessons that can also be fun for the child.
Why is it important?
Here in the Middle East, obesity is one of the biggest health concerns affecting our children and an area that the government and local health authorities are actively acting on.
According to the World Health Organization* (WHO), worldwide obesity has doubled since 1980 leading to 42 million children being obese by 2013. And, if this increasing trend continues, the number of overweight or obese infants and young children globally will reach 70 million by 2025. However, despite the worrying statistics – all experts agree that obesity is preventable, and educating children from a young age about healthy lifestyle habits can help ensure them a healthy childhood and eventually a healthier adult life. So where should parents start?
Nutritional expert Dr. Carla Habib Mourad, Clinical and Community Nutritionist, believes that one of the most important things parents can do for their children is to be good role models themselves. Parents should look to set a good example and adopt healthy eating habits – especially in front of their children, as well as help them lead an active lifestyle. Simple changes to day-to-day family life will help ensure children grow up with a healthy relationship with food and exercise.
“We recommend adopting four simple daily habits to ensure all the family enjoys good health – managing portion sizes, ensuring daily meals and any snacks are nutritious and varied, drinking water to stay hydrated, and finally, encouraging the whole family to move more and sit less,” she says.
1. More Movement
The first tip is probably the easiest – parents should get their children moving and active. Any physical activity is better than none at all and one way to get kids to move more is to challenge them to only sit down for a certain length of time each day – decreasing the time spent on sedentary activities such as playing on the computer. Finding alternatives tailored to a child’s interests from throwing games in the garden or park to organized sports can help them not only to develop their motor skills, but also with decision-making, paying attention, and teamwork.
2. More Water
Water is crucial to life; it hydrates and helps regulate body temperature, which is especially important for children who are physically active or living in hot climates – all without adding calories to the diet. But what if your child doesn't like water?
-Make it available and handy so when they see it they’re more prone to drink it
-Make drinking water fun with a colored straw or specially designed cup
-You might also try putting a little lemon wedge or squeezing a bit of fresh orange into it
3. More Fruits & Vegetables
“Parents should ensure that their children enjoy a variety of healthy foods from different food groups. The more varied smells, colors, and tastes in their diet will help stimulate children’s interest in food. Kids, especially younger ones, will eat mostly what's available at home. Having healthy choices on hand helps them to make healthy food choices for themselves without feeling restricted by what they should and should not eat,” continues Carla.
Another way to encourage children to choose nutritious and varied food is by engaging them in purchasing and also helping prepare meals at home – this enables them to see how to create a balanced meal for themselves.
4. More Managed Portions
Did you know that portion sizes began to increase in the 1980s and have been growing ever since? In fact, our perception of portions has become so distorted over time that, according to research, it's hard for us to recognize what a normal portion looks like. Parents should always ensure the meals served to their family contain the right balance of nutrients. Moreover, even when the quality of food offered is nutritious, it is equally important to manage the portion sizes.
Here are some tips to instill healthier eating habits among children:
- What is a reasonable amount of food?
- One easy way to size up portions for your kids is to use your hands as a guide. Kids have smaller hands than adults, so it serves as a reminder that kids should eat smaller portions.
- A clenched fist is about a cup — which is the recommended amount for a portion of pasta, rice, cereal, vegetables, and fruit.
- A meat portion should be about as big as a palm.
- Encourage them to split their dessert with their sibling or friend
- Encourage the habit of eating at the table to avoid distractions such as the TV as it’s easy to overeat when your attention is focused on something else
- Serve food on smaller plates so meals look larger. A sandwich on a dinner plate looks lost; on an appetizer plate it looks plenty
- Aim for three scheduled healthful meals and one or two healthy snacks throughout the day. Skipping a meal often leads to overeating at the next one
- Add more salads and fruit to your family's diet, especially at the start of a meal, which can help control hunger and give a sense of fullness while controlling calorie intake
- Try not to rush through meals. Go slowly and give everyone a chance to feel full before serving more. Teach them that it takes 15 minutes for a satiety signal to reach their brain to know they’re full
Remember the role parents play in showing kids how to size up portions. As kids grow, their appetites will vary depending on a number of things. They tend to be hungrier during growth spurts or sports seasons when they're more active and less hungry during downtimes. As their appetites change, keep serving right-sized portions and encourage them to slow down to enjoy their food. Then check in on whether they're full before they go for seconds.