Parenting: Kids and Food

David Murphy and his kids like comfort food, but they all watch their diets.

February 16, 2011 7:23:15 AM PST
In the Murphy family, the drive to get kids eating healthier starts at home.

Plenty has been written about childhood obesity over the years and rather than tread over that well-worn ground, it's suffice to simply state the obvious: a balanced diet, along with exercise, are the crucial elements in getting kids off to a good start in life. Along the way, it's also nice if some lessons about food choices are learned and good habits acquired. That way, the early pattern of healthy eating has a chance to stick with a kid throughout their lives.

You can start your children along this path with a visual aide. Did you know that in 2005, the U.S. Department of Agriculture changed that age-old food pyramid we were all shown when we were kids? has a really neat web page that not only shows the new design, but includes a great article that lists all the details. Here's the skinny. Government nutritionists have decided it isn't good enough to only tell kids about the variety of foods they should be eating. They also want kids to learn which foods they should be eating most often. Rather than showing pictures of milk, meat, fruit, etc., the new pyramid represents different food types through a rainbow of colors, the fat stripes representing things like vegetables and grain which should be consumed the most, and the thin stripes noting items like oils and fats that should go down the hatch in lesser amounts. The idea is to show kids that mixing different foods isn't the only mission; they should also give some thought as to how much of various foods they're consuming.

The artwork also shows a kid hiking up the side of the new pyramid to illustrate the value of exercise in the overall health plan.

Of course, the pyramid doesn't mean much if a child isn't getting some healthy help at home, too. In our house, the kitchen cabinets usually contain some snack foods; we're not saints in this regard. But we include pretzels, crackers (including some whole-grain varieties) and baked potato chips which are lower in oil and fat. Microwave popcorn is an option, and there are usually some nuts around. There's always yogurt in the fridge, too, and we do our best to keep a steady supply of fruit available, even in the months when there's less variety. Clementine oranges are great because you get a lot of them in one crate and you can just dump them into the crisper for easy pickings. Bananas are also regular residents on the countertop (we hang them from a neat little hook designed to keep them from bruising). We also stay stocked with a variety of juices and we keep the flavors rotating so they don't get tired. There's soda in the garage but that's a regulated treat that isn't usually allowed.

We use 2% milk and whole wheat bread and cereals (okay, occasionally, I break down and get some Frosted Flakes, but usually there's Chex and Raisin Bran on hand), and we serve salad with most dinners.

You'd think our kids would have revolted over this long ago, but I'm happy to say that all of them eat salad now, and even when I offer to include my 12-year-old in one of my dietary vices (like Raisinettes), he usually declines in favor of grapes or crackers. He also has come to really love the salads. Every night, you can pretty much plan on him going back for seconds and finishing off the greens. We cut the fat off meat so regularly that now the kid questions any kind of unusual chunk of anything on his chicken or red meat and actually asks what it is and if it's okay. He's not into fat, basically.

Frankly, at twelve, my youngest is far more aware and concerned with what he eats than I was when I was his age. As a parent, it's a great thing to see. Like his older siblings, he appears bound to carry this devotion to eating healthy into his adult years, and all it took was a sustained example from us.

Personally, I don't go crazy with this, neither for my kids nor for me. Eating is one of the great pleasures in life, and I allow everyone in the family to enjoy some gastro-intestinal guilty pleasures from time to time without the guilt. But even when eating out, we usually do the salad thing, order rounded meals, and lean toward bringing home leftovers in doggie bags rather than stuffing ourselves to the gills.

Finally, this effort to educate your kids can also have side benefits. I've been able to do a better job of controlling my own health and weight by eating in the same house as my health-conscious kids. My weight's down, blood pressure and cholestrerol look good, and we all stand a better chance of enjoying each other's happy company for a long time, thanks to our collective dietary behavior.

---David Murphy

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