It’s been a year since schools implemented changes to meet the National School Lunch Program dietary guidelines to lower sodium and fat and increase fiber in school lunches. As the schools do their part to help improve health by providing healthier food options, I encourage parents to continue helping their children make healthier food choices at home. It takes times and consistency – by both the parent and the child – before a changed behavior becomes a lifestyle. Here are few suggestions to help you create success in your home.
Offer a healthy meal
Using the ChooseMyPlate concept as a guide for meal preparation and food selection is a great place to start. The model features a plate half filled with fruits and vegetables, which adds color, fiber and a variety of vitamins and minerals to the meal – not to mention very few calories and no fat. The remainder of the meal should be one-quarter plate lean protein and one-quarter plate whole grains, with low-fat milk on the side.
The USDA ChooseMyPlate website (choosemyplate.gov) offers many helpful suggestions, including tips for eating healthy on a budget, as well as recipes and free colorful printouts to use as place mats or educational tools.
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Lead by example
Be a good role model for your children by eating a variety of vegetables and fruits, both cooked and raw. Use fresh fruits and vegetables that are in season and select red, orange and dark green vegetables. It takes exposure to new foods to see if you really dislike them or not. Show your kids you’re willing to try new foods and invite them to experiment, too. Involve them in the process by taking them with you to a local farmers market to select foods or let them help plant a garden. Have a “taste-test night” where everyone tries the new food.
Instead of a sugary dessert, offer an appealing presentation of fresh fruit to satiate the sweet tooth.
Create a healthy family eating environment
Eat at a designated table, turn off the TV and avoid use of electronic devices. By keeping the focus on the meal, kids are more likely to enjoy their meal and less inclined to overeat mindlessly. As the parent, be in charge of the timing of the meals, which foods are presented and monitoring appropriate portions for age. Children can be in charge of whether and how much of their portion they eat, but parents determine when meal time is over.
Some local schools are implementing a self-serve program to encourage elementary children to eat more fruits and vegetables, believing that if children are allowed to make choices about fruits and vegetables, they are more likely to consume them. This is a good practice to follow at home.
In an added bonus to building healthier eating habits, families that eat together are able to share their feelings and daily experiences. As a result, research indicates kids usually do better in school and get in trouble, according to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.
Encourage an active lifestyle
Ideally, children and youth should get 60 minutes of play and activity every day. While this may not be a problem during the summer, it can become more challenging during the school year. To encourage more activity, turn off the TV or limit the amount of non-school screen time (TV, computer, phone and games) to a maximum of two hours per day. Don’t allow your child to collapse in front of the television with a bag of chips after a challenging day at school. Research indicates that eating junk food and high-sugar snacks will actually make them feel more sluggish. A piece of fruit and some moderate activity will reinvigorate them. Encourage activities that interest the child, including sports, bike riding or walking the dog.
Instilling good nutrition is a process. Be patient, consistent and “walk the walk,” and your family will eventually reap the benefits.