One third of UK children are overweight or obese by the time they leave primary school. However we also know that there are 1.25 million people with an eating disorder some as young as 6 years old! We need to learn to talk about eating well without triggering concerns about body image or an unhealthy obsession with calories. In this post I share my top ten tips to help your overweight child to eat well.
One: Get Real
We often try to get our kids to eat what’s healthy without thinking about the child as an individual. We all have different food preferences and a good place to start is with foods that your child likes. For example if they have a sweet tooth 150ml of a fruit smoothie with a small amount of green leafy vegetables like spinach blitzed in may be a good place to start. Always do this with your child in an open and honest way. Never hide the things you want them to eat. This sort of deception could backfire and trust between you and your child is really important. Working with your Dietitian you should be able to come up with several ideas that would work for your child specifically.
Two: Get Active
Science tells us that overweight children should be active for at least one hour every day. This is easier at primary school but it’s something that needs to be planned. Being active does not just mean doing sports although that’s one option. Walking, going out on bikes, playground games, dancing and digging in the garden all count. Again you will need to find activities that appeal to your child and make a plan with them. Once you have the plan turn it into a poster so everyone can get a quick visual reminder.
Three: Get others onside
The old African saying that “it takes a village to raise a child” really resonates with me. It’s no good if parents have a plan but extended family, school and friends undo it!! When I work with families I always offer a free webcast that families can give to others.. This explains the importance of a good relationship with food and key tips to help children eat better. This webcast is also available for a small charge to anyone who would like it. Check out this link to find out more and get your copy.
Four: Get organised
Shopping and cooking well gives you a great opportunity to influence what your child actually eats. Plan meals together and get your child involved in cooking. Shops can be a real challenge for children who like a snack attack so it’s often better to go on your own. Make sure you understand food labels for those times where you can’t cook everything from scratch. There is some great information at this link.
When it comes to restaurants and cafes the internet has given us a fantastic planning tool. Check out the menus in advance and call the restaurant if you need to check how something has been cooked. Help your child decide what they are going to order at home. Do this after they have eaten a meal rather than at the restaurant when they will probably be feeling very hungry and everyone else may be drooling over the high fat/high sugar options. Most restaurants have a children’s menu with sensible portions. However for tweens and teens if the restaurant is known for super-sizing consider asking them to downsize for everyone in your party and give you extra of some healthier elements instead. If all else fails and the portions are still too big help your child to know that they don’t have to clean their plate if they are full.
Five: Get mindful
Most of us are guilty of eating so fast that we don’t even taste our meals. This also means that we don’t have time to recognise when we are full. As adults many of us are familiar with the idea of using meditation techniques to help us become more mindful in our day-to-day lives. This can help us to be more aware of what we are eating giving us a better chance of making healthier choices and stopping when we are full. A great way to help children become more mindful is to listen to a piece music and try to really focus on different elements each time. One time you might listen out for the drums and tap out the rhythm another time you might pick out the melody from the vocals or keyboard, another time you might try to hear the strumming patterns on a guitar. If you lose focus you just gently remind yourself to go back to what you were trying to do. Mindful colouring can also be great. It’s important that there is no sense of needing to achieve success but rather it’s about going through the process. Once your child is a bit more mindful you can try to help them translate this to their eating. They could eat something and try to use all their senses to tell you what they are experiencing.
Six: Get positive
Children who are overweight may already feel as if they have failed in some way. They may have been subject to some very negative comments about their weight and unhelpful comparisons with friends and other family members. Never compare your child to anyone else but instead help them to spend time with good role models. If some of their friends eat really well and are active then spending more time together will help your child if you frame things right. Just sitting at meal table with a friend who asks for several different types of vegetables can be great. Just serve the friend what they request and then say to your child “and which veg would you like today?” Try not to specifically talk about your child’s weight at all but rather focus on the benefits of eating well eg being strong, staying focused, moving faster.
Seven: Ditch calories
Now there’s a bit of a pun here but of course as you help your child make healthier choices they will naturally start ditching some calories. However I really don’t like talking about calories with children at all. I prefer to talk about having the right amount of energy or fuel and about eating well to get the most out of life. There is so much pressure on our young people to conform to a specific body image and we must be really careful not to drive our children to worrying about calories in an unhealthy way.
Eight: Ditch rewards for outcomes
Now I’m not against rewards but generally I prefer to reward sticking with the programme ie the process rather than focusing too much on the outcome. Our genetic differences mean that it’s simply much harder for some people to maintain a healthy weight than it is for others and some children will struggle more than others. What we want is for them to take steps in the right direction and to celebrate with them when they do. And please never use food as a reward for anything.
Nine: Ditch joyless meals
Food is a key part of our enjoyment of life and it’s no different for our children. Do all you can to make food fun. One great way of managing snacking is to make snack bags or boxes with your child. Get a plain bag or box and help your child personalise it with stickers, paint or drawings. Then help them select 10 different snacks that they would like to see in their bag from a long list that you draw up using what you know about their likes and dislikes. Let them know that each day they can select 2 items from the list of 10. This is a great activity to do together with your Dietitian who will have lots of creative ideas. It’s amazing what some children want in their boxes. My son likes to have squeezy sugar free jelly and chick peas. He also likes to have a bag of cheese and onion crisps. The key thing is to increase the number of times they have healthier choices and gradually show them the links between foods they like that have a lot of fat or sugar and other foods that have a similar colour, taste or texture that would be a more positive choice.
Ten: Ditch the good food, bad food narrative
Now I’ve used the word “healthier” a lot. I try to avoid the notion of healthy or good and unhealthy or bad foods. There is no such thing. It’s about the overall balance. As parents we all know that our kids like to rebel so the language you use is really important. Remember that some foods may contain a fair amount of sugar or fat but also lots of vitamins and minerals and maybe protein and fibre. Try to talk about the overall quality of a food in terms of how it helps our bodies. That said it’s important that they develop an awareness of which foods are high in fat and free sugars. Using Apps can be a fun way of doing this and it will link with what they are learning at school. Try the change for life App which is available free at this link.
I hope this is helpful and good luck. If you would like more information about how to talk to children and young people about the importance of maintaining a healthy weight without any judgment or shame check out this link for a fact packed 45 minute video. Great value at just £5