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Fun Ways to Get Young Children to Eat Healthier

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Childhood obesity is has reached epidemic proportions in the United States. Consider these statistics:
  • The percentage of children aged 6-11 years in the United States who were obese increased from 7% in 1980 to nearly 20% in 2008. Similarly, the percentage of adolescents aged 12-19 years who were obese increased from 5% to 18% over the same period.
  • In 2008, more than one third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese.
  • Obese youth are more likely to have risk factors for cardiovascular disease, such as high cholesterol or high blood pressure. In a population-based sample of 5- to 17-year-olds, 70% of obese youth had at least one risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
  • Children and adolescents who are obese are at greater risk for bone and joint problems, sleep apnea, and social and psychological problems such as stigmatization and poor self-esteem.

The challenge for fathers is to help children eat better and make physical activity a higher priority. So what can a dad do to help his children want to eat healthier food and to change what might be poor eating habits? These tips for helping children have more fun eating healthier will address their basic need for healthy food and at the same time enjoy doing it with you.

Prepare healthy meals together. As fathers, we tend to live in a busy and stress-filled world, and often find ourselves fixing meals that are quick and easy, or picking up take-out at the nearest fast food place. Taking the time to cook and involving the children in the cooking makes a meal more fun for them and helps you teach them about ingredients and how they help or hurt their bodies. And cooking healthy doesn't necessarily have to take longer. Cooking healthy meals at home is made easier with a little advanced planning and shopping.

Let the kids help with shopping and planning. Speaking of planning, make sure the kids help decide on meals and snacks and let them help you at the grocery store. That way they can suggest some meals that they would like (which they are more likely to eat happily) and also have the chance to explore the nutrition and cost of various ingredients.

Consider foods that attract kids. When I was a little boy, my dad made pancakes on Saturday mornings that looked like Mickey Mouse, and somehow, to me, those pancakes tasted a lot better than plain, old round pancakes. The same general rule applies to helping kids eat healthier. Consider serving thigs like veggie chips, carving peanut butter sandwiches on whole wheat bread to look like a jack o'lantern or decorating the top of the morning breakfast cereal with a smiling face of bananas, blueberries and raisins.

Clean out the pantry. Go through your cupboards, shelves and pantries and get all the junk out. The easiest way to cut out the unhealthy and add in the healthy is to keep all the unhealthy out. You can even make it a game with the kids to rad the nutrition labels and get rid of anything that has more saturated fat or carbs than a given level. The child with the most fat kicked out of the house can win a prize. And cleaning out the pantry has to involve your own favorite bad foods as well.

Hit the buffet. If you are going out to dinner, try taking them to a buffet. Kids love getting to choose among various food options; just make sure that they start with veggies and fruits and that they choose healthy options. It is also a good place to teach about healthy and unhealthy choices.

Read library books to help with meal planning. Your local library will likely have a good selection of books that teach about healthy eating that you could read with your kids. Try one or more of these titles:

  • The Berenstein Bears and Too Much Junk Food (Stan and Jan Berenstain)
  • Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (Judi Barrett)
  • Gobble and Gulp (Stephen Cosgove)
  • Gregory the Terrible Eater (Mitchell Sharmat)
  • Oliver's Fruit Salad (Vivian French)
  • Rabbit Food (Susan Gretz)

Have a "fast-food-free" month. One of the biggest challenges to healthy eating is the temptation for fast food. While there are some exceptions, fast food is laden with fat and carbs, which lead to weight gain without other interventions. So try taking a month on a "fast food fast." Then, after the month is over, your kids may not even miss it. But if they do, try limiting fast food to rare occasions.

Add fruits and veggies to other foods. Sometimes dads can take an approach of simply adding a little good food to something the kids already like. You might consider putting some fruit into morning cereal, making muffins with fresh blueberries, serving a smoothie with a little carrot juice in addition to fruit and yogurt, putting some additional veggies into your vegetable soup or stew, even if it comes from a can.

Keep fruit on hand and ready to eat. When we were working to help our kids switch from sugary treats to fruit, we made sure that the fruits we wanted them to eat were easy to find and get to. So we sliced up a couple of apples and oranges and had them in air tight containers in the refrigerator. We also bought lots of grapes and strawberries. And we would also keep baby carrots and sliced cucumbers handy. When the foods are readily accessible, the kids are more likely to enjoy them.

Make after school snacks healthy. When kids get home from school, an after school snack tends to be a high priority. Make sure that the focus after school is on healthy food that will help the kids keep focus on homework and other activities. Fruits, vegetables, low-fat cheeses and other good options should come first. And if you or your kids' mom is not home when the kids get home from school, then plan ahead and check up on the kids to make sure that the choices at home are healthy.

A little effort at planning, preparing and shopping, and engaging the kids in the process will all make a big difference in helping your kids eat better and make healthier choices now and throughout their lives.

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