The school bell rings — and so does the opportunity for children to be around a variety of peer influences who may have a lot to say about food and body weight. Perhaps your child is entering a new school this year with new food selections, or he or she has different friends than they’ve had to eat lunch with in the past. The cafeteria, an exciting social situation for some, can be an anxious place for other children. So how can you approach the topic of health and appropriate food choices with your kids?
During the summer, you likely have more control over what foods are provided to your children. But now they’re heading into the school year, where cafeteria food may not be as healthy as what’s served at home; plus, snacks may be more prevalent with birthday parties and influences from friends. There’s also likely more discussion about food in general from friends, some positive and some negative.
Encourage regular meals and snacks at home, and teach positive choices when away. Just because a child is eating breakfast and lunch at school doesn’t mean meals become a free for all. You can still discuss choosing nutritious foods that will fuel the body. Equip kids with the basic skills and tools they need to make good food choices outside the home. If they’re used to frequent consumption of fruits and vegetables at home, they’ll be more likely to choose those foods when making their own selections.
Make family meals a priority. Family meals are beneficial for more than just nutrition — they’re a good time to check in with each other, too. According to many health expertsm this can improve mental health. Use meals as an opportunity to disconnect from the external world and connect with each other, all while enjoying delicious and wholesome foods. These meals have been shown to enhance academic success and prevent behavior problems at school, and they can help promote a healthy body weight.
Model by example. It’s always important for children to have positive adult role models in their lives. If kids don’t grow up seeing their caregivers eat healthy foods, we can’t expect them to take the initiative themselves. Make a habit of serving a vegetable with dinner each night. Have healthy snacks ready in the refrigerator for when they come home. Pack lunches with your child and show him or her the nutrient-dense foods you put in yours so they’ll want to model the same.
Be aware of potential extra spending. When I get a diet recall from patients in clinic, parents are often surprised to hear that their kids are getting extras at school, like ice cream, chips and sugary drinks. Have a discussion with you child about what he or she is purchasing and/or trading with their friends. If your child has a card-based system with money on it, make sure it’s not set to auto load when the money runs out. It’s easy to lose track of what’s purchased and what money is spent if it’s automatically loaded on the cards for the kids to use at their discretion.
Avoid focusing on weight. When it comes to instilling healthy habits, it’s best not to focus directly on your child’s weight. The desire to be thin is now reaching young elementary school children. When teaching about healthy habits, try not to make negative comments about weight. It’s probably best not to focus too much on weight. If a child needs to lose weight for medical reasons, instead focus on the above tips for providing nutritious food at home and fostering a healthy lifestyle overall. You can change the family’s actions without actually talking about it.
Be aware of diet talk. A new school year also means new conversations with peers. Unfortunately, not all of these will be positive. There’s an increasing prevalence of teenagers and even younger children focusing on body weight and diet behaviors. If you have an open dialogue with your children (another selling point for family dinners), they may be more willing to discuss any concerns that arise during the school day. If they do bring up concerns about weight, be sure to listen and acknowledge those feelings. You may want to discuss any concerns you learn about with your pediatrician. The goal is to foster healthy eating behaviors, which in turn will lead to a healthy body weight without over-focusing on dieting.
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