WESTCHESTER COUNTY, N.Y. — Almost every parent knows that doing the best thing for your children sometimes means doing that which is most difficult.
Parents are busy and so are kids. Most kids love fast food and don't often complain when a pizza is delivered to the door at dinnertime. Eating on the run is common, but in some families everyone eats when they’re ready, squeezing in some dinner between homework, chores, television, computer time and/or video games.
This lifestyle helps contribute to the childhood obesity problem in this country, according to Dr. Peter Richel, MD, chief of pediatrics at Northern Westchester Hospital. “Parents mean well. We see good parenting in our practice,” Richel said. “But they don’t realize the nutritional value of a home-cooked meal compared to fast food, and they don’t realize how valuable it is to sit down to a family dinner,” he added.
Studies support Richel’s contention. Researchers at Kaiser Permanente recently published a report indicating that teen girls are more successful in managing their weight when their family sits down together for the evening meal. These girls also had better self-image and ate less fast food than peers who rarely sat around the dinner table with their family.
But weight control is not the only benefit to family meals: Richel said that time invested in the ritual also seems to help kids avoid alcohol and drugs, get better grades and avoid depression and anxiety. Planning and preparing these meals takes more sweat equity on a parent’s part — especially given everyone’s schedules, said Richel, but the payoff is worth it.
The best way to ensure that all meals are healthy and nutritious is to make sure that fruits and vegetables take up about half of the plate, Richel said. “You can get a lot of good information at choosemyplate.gov,” he said. In fact, the government’s new approach to healthy eating is simple and easy to follow.
But meals are only one component of eating. Snacks are a strong influence on children’s weight and health. Parents probably know they shouldn’t keep chips and sweets on hand for snacks, but even the options pediatricians once recommended are suspect, according to Richel.
“We used to recommend granola bars and rice cakes,” he said, “But these can be full of sugar and simple carbohydrates that can encourage weight gain.” Instead, Richel advises providing snacks — fruit, nuts and carrot and celery sticks with hummus or peanut butter. “Children will fill up faster on these snacks and they’ll get better nutrients this way.”
When it comes to controlling weight, activity is a must, said Richel. “Kids should get at least 15 minutes a day of sweaty, heavy-breathing exercise. Unless they are involved in sports, they just don’t get enough activity,” he said.
Dr. Richel has the following suggestions to increase children’s activity level:
- Limit screen time — TV and computer;
- Set a timer for video games and social media (1-2 hours is plenty);
- Take a family walk after dinner;
- Encourage participation in sports, through school or community;
- Spend time together on the playground or at the park;
- Ask your kids what activities they like most and make time for them on your calendar;
- Introduce children to new activities.
A parent’s positive involvement in a child’s life — particularly where nutrition and fitness are concerned — can pave the way for good habits that will last a lifetime, says Richel.