Getting your child to be your healthy partner

April 2, 2010 8:00:01 AM PDT
It's almost impossible to keep a child from wanting junk food... even if you don't keep potato chips, cookies, candy and sticky buns in your home.

Junk food is everywhere your kids go. It's at their friends' houses, at the movies, at the mall, at the grocery store, even at most schools in vending machines. You will fight a very frustrating battle if you try to avoid it altogether. I think the healthier plan is to enjoy junk food in small doses with lots of healthy food to counteract it. I aim for about a one in 10 ratio of healthy to not-so-healthy foods. That way it truly becomes the "icing on the cake" for you and your child. A special treat to be enjoyed regularly but nowhere near the amounts of the healthy foods.

I learned this lesson the hard way. I remember as a new mom I was determined to teach my three-year-old to make healthy choices by all but eliminating junk from his healthy and growing little body. So instead of taking cupcakes with frosting to his music class on his birthday, I took blueberry muffins and passed them out. To my surprise, not one child ate one, including my son who loves muffins at home (too much peer pressure!) After we sang "Happy Birthday" and blew out the 3 candles in the homemade muffins, all the kids peeled off the cupcake paper, took one look at the healthy snack and gave it back to their moms. My son then asked where the cake was and I said I didn't have one. I quickly realized that there are some times when you should give in to tradition and "let them eat cake!" as Marie Antoinette would say. Already by age 3 they had learned from television and our culture at large that cake and icing are for birthdays.

Jake gets his sweet tooth naturally. I love sweets and my mom loves them too. But I've learned to balance sugar and salt, protein and carbohydrates, fats and non-fats to stay very healthy my whole life. So at this point, I decided to try a modified approach with my toddler. I didn't give up my quest to have a healthy child. I just figured I'd leave enough fruits and veggies out in our kitchen and tell Jake he can have both, he usually chooses to go healthy first, then have a sweet later just like mom. And we talked about healthy choices for dinner, how big of a portion is plenty or not enough, what time of day to eat so your body works the best and feels good... etc. Not lectures, just a couple sentences here and there every month. Now 6 years later at age 9, Jake is a very healthy eater and will often turn down sweets in lieu of an apple.

Now each day our goal is 3 fresh fruits each morning for Jake's breakfast (apples, plums, bananas, strawberries), then Jake chooses the fruit cup in his cafeteria at school, and for dinner he has 3 veggies (raw carrot sticks, corn on the cob, rice or a sweet potato, broccoli). That way by the end of each day, he's had 7 fruits and vegetables! Our pediatrician just told me last month at Jake's well-visit how great that is... double the average daily number of fruits and vegetables for an American child. Of course, sweets and salty snacks are still a part of Jake and my life. But if he's had 7 healthy fruits and veggies, 3 proteins (bacon at breakfast, a burger at lunch, chicken for dinner, etc.) plus grains and dairy, then I'm fine if he has an oatmeal cookie or Pringles for an after school snack and a frozen Snickers bar for dessert after dinner. I let myself have a slice of pumpkin pie or a couple cookies too, and I make sure he sees that I'm rewarding my sweet tooth. Small rewards are better than denying yourself or your child, then watching them overindulge.

Speaking of dairy products, another challenge for us has been that Jake doesn't like many dairy products except ice cream (he won't drink milk, eat yogurt or cheese.) So he takes calcium supplements recommended by his doctor, and gets the rest of his Calcium from broccoli and ice cream. Nothing is perfect, but that's our healthy compromise.

Jake also learns portion control by watching me put food in groups on his plate that are about the size of my palm. He's welcome to seconds and thirds any time, but usually he likes the 4 items on his plate because there's variety there.

We also exercise together... riding bikes, playing basketball, going for long walks, swimming. Even during the week when he exercises without me at school, I tell him whatever exercise I was able to fit in that day. Even if it's only 10 or 15 minutes, I make sure to say "I went for a short bike ride today... it was crowded on the trail." Or "the ducks were out along Boathouse Row when I went walking today... I wish you had been there, they looked hungry!" I try to make it fun to exercise and generally, he likes it.

I was blown away one day when he asked me why I never seem to get sick. The way he phrased it was, "Mommy, when was the last time you stayed home with the flu or a cold?" I told him it's been too long for me to remember, at least 10 years?and I explained that is because I make healthy choices. That makes him want to make healthy choices too.

We also talk about Unhealthy habits when we see them... smoking (both my parents and all my grandparents are/were smokers); drinking (when we see someone acting drunk after a Phillies game), and drug use (after the Michael Phelps incident.) We use these natural incidents to continually talk about what the good choices are for an athlete in general and for Jake and me specifically.

It's no guarantee that Jake and I will always have good habits, or good health... but it helps to lay the groundwork and not to deny your child the fun goodies. Just try to teach them balance!