One third of UK children are overweight or obese by the time they leave primary school. We also know that there are 1.25 million people with an eating disorder, some as young as 6 years old. If you’re interested in helping a child maintain a healthy weight you will need to talk about eating well without triggering concerns about body image. In this post I share my top ten tips to help your overweight child to eat well.
One: Get Real
Your child is unique. We all have different food preferences and a good place to start is with foods that your child likes. If they have a sweet tooth try 150ml of a fruit smoothie with a small amount of green leafy vegetables blitzed in. Never hide the things you want them to eat because deception can backfire and negatively impact your relationship. You could make a game of it. Whizz up smoothies with different amounts of spinach then get them to give you feedback.
Working with your Dietitian you should be able to come up with specific ideas that would work for your child.
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. Walking, going out on bikes, playground games, dancing and digging in the garden all count. 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 gives 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 eats. Plan meals together and get your child involved in cooking. Shops can be a real challenge for children who get the munchies, 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. If they are hungry they may choose more than they need or they might select more high fat, high sugar options.
Most restaurants have a children’s menu with sensible portions. However if they are choosing from the adult menu have a look around at the portions. If it looks like the restaurant is super-sizing, consider asking them to downsize for everyone in your party. You can always ask for extra of some healthier elements instead. If the portions are still too big help your child understand that they don’t have to clean their plate if they are full. Most restaurants will box up leftovers. Just make sure you get them into the fridge as quickly as possible to maintain food safety.
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. This can help us to be more aware of what we are eating, giving us a better chance of making positive choices.
A great way to help children become more mindful is to listen to a piece music and 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. Nex time you might try to hear the strumming patterns on a guitar. If you lose focus 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, it’s all about 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. For more information about mindful eating see my article here.
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 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. 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. Instead focus on the benefits of eating well eg being strong, staying focused or moving faster.
Seven: Ditch calories
There’s a bit of a pun here because 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 to get the most out of life. There is so much pressure on our young people to conform to a specific body image. We must be really careful not to drive our children to worrying about calories in an unhealthy way.
Eight: Ditch rewards for outcomes
I’m not against rewards but generally. However 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. What we want is for our children 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. We don’t want our children to come to expect food every time they do well at something. There are so many other ways to celebrate such as balloons and fun stationery. Get together with other parents and see what ideas you can come up with.
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 this with 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 have drawn 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
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 we 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.
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