Many things can influence a child, including friends, teachers and the things they see when they sit in front of the TV or computer. If you’re a parent, know that your everyday behavior plays a big part in shaping your child’s behavior, too. With your help, kids can learn to develop healthy eating and physical activity habits that last throughout their lives.
Healthy eating and physical activity are essential for children of any age. “They can have many health benefits for children, including promoting heart health and improving mood,” says Dr. Voula Osganian, a child obesity specialist at NIH.
Getting active and eating right may also prevent excess weight and childhood obesity, a growing concern in this country. Today, nearly 1 in 3 children in the United States is overweight or obese. “If someone develops obesity as a child or adolescent, there’s a very high likelihood that they’ll remain obese or overweight as an adult,” Osganian explains. “But studies also show that if you start eating healthy and being active early, you tend to maintain those habits over time.”
Although most of us know that it’s a good idea to eat healthy food and move more, it isn’t always easy to do. Children aren’t likely to change their diet and activity habits on their own. It’s up to you to make it easier for your family to make healthy choices.
“Parents are very important in terms of arranging an environment and setting a model for healthy or unhealthy behavior,” says Dr. Leonard H. Epstein, an expert on childhood obesity at the University of Buffalo. “Parents bring foods into the house. They control how much time a child can watch TV. They control what kinds of social activities are paired with foods. And kids learn a huge amount about eating and physical activity from watching and imitating their parents.”
While it’s never too late to start making healthy changes in your family, research suggests that the earlier your kids learn healthy behaviors, the better.
Dr. Julie Lumeng, a pediatrician at the University of Michigan, focuses her NIH-funded research on the factors that affect eating behaviors in young children—especially preschoolers and infants. That’s an ideal time to start exposing your children to a variety of healthy foods, such as fruits and vegetables, so they develop a liking for them.
Getting young ones to accept fruits and vegetables can be a challenge, but some parents give up too quickly if a child rejects a new food. Research suggests that the more times you offer a food, the more likely a child will be to warm up to it. “Kids typically have to taste a new food 9 to 15 times to begin to like it,” Lumeng says.
If your child doesn’t like a new food right away, stay positive and keep trying over time. Encouraging kids to take just one bite of a new food can help. But avoid creating conflicts and stress over it.
“Trying a new food can be exciting and also stressful in general,” Lumeng says. “Several studies show that kids are more likely to try a new food if they’re eating in a setting that’s relaxing and pleasant.”
Children under the age of three tend to stop eating on their own when they’re full. “But after age three,” Lumeng says, “the more you put on their plate, the more they’ll eat.” So make sure to give your kids child-size portions.
Take opportunities to teach young children about feelings of fullness. “If your child asks for another helping, instead of saying, ‘No, honey, you’ve had enough,’ try saying something like, ‘You must really be hungry tonight,’ to raise their awareness of their feelings,” Lumeng suggests. “Or when they stop eating, say, ‘Oh, you must feel full now,’ to help teach about hunger and feeling satisfied.”
Several studies show that parents can effectively influence healthy behaviors by talking in a positive way or avoiding certain situations altogether. “Instead of telling your children, ‘No, you can’t have any more cookies,’ just keep cookies out of the house altogether,” says Lumeng.
When you bring unhealthy food and sugary drinks into the house, “parents essentially become the food police,” adds Epstein. “It’s easier to create an environment in the home where there’s limited access to unhealthy foods and lots of access to healthy foods.”
Experts recommend that most kids get at least an hour of moderate to vigorous physical activity each day. Parents can help by limiting TV and computer time to no more than one or two hours per day.
“Small changes in the home environment can also have a huge effect on physical activity,” says Epstein. You can make sports equipment like balls and jump ropes more accessible by putting them next to the door. Walking fast, bicycling, jumping rope and playing basketball, soccer or hopscotch are all good ways for kids to be active.
To recap, here are all the ways parents can help kids form healthy habits:
1. Be a role model. Eat healthy family meals together. Walk or ride bikes instead of watching TV or surfing the Web.
2. Make healthy choices easy. Put nutritious food where it’s easy to see. Keep balls and other sports gear handy.
3. Focus on fun. Play in the park, or walk through the zoo or on a nature trail. Cook a healthy meal together.
4. Limit screen time. Don’t put a TV in your child’s bedroom. Avoid snacks and meals in front of the TV.
5. Check with caregivers or schools. Make sure they offer healthy foods, active playtime, and limited TV or video games.
6. Change a little at a time. If you drink whole milk, switch to 2% milk for a while, then try even lower fat milks. If you drive everywhere, try walking to a nearby friend’s house, then later try walking a little farther.
When it comes to food and physical activity, what you say and do around your children can have a lasting effect. Work together as a family to make healthy habits easy and fun.