Healthy eating and physical activity don't become habits overnight. It takes time and effort to make them part of a daily routine. This guide tells you where to start and what you can do at home to help your children ages 4 - 12 to keep a healthy weight.
Research shows children are often more willing to eat healthy foods and be active if they see their parents and other family members doing these things first. When the whole family participates, everyone benefits.
Keep it a family affair by:
- Have regularly scheduled mealtimes at home at least once a day.
- Make mealtime enjoyable, with flexible, healthy choices for kids.
- Take walks together, or other simple activities, after the evening meal or on particular days of the week.
- Choose activities together that don't involve television or screens, like board games or outdoor games.
When you make changes step-by-step and set realistic goals, you are more likely to succeed in changing your eating habits over the long run.
- Decide on two or three specific, small changes in eating or physical activity at a time.
- Write down your goals for the family each week, and keep track of your family’s progress every day. Writing down your goals and referring back to them over and over again will help your family stay on course.
- Keep a log of daily food and activity to track healthy eating and physical activity goals. Each day, try to write down everything your child eats and drinks and how much time is spent doing physical activities. If your child is old enough, he or she can keep the log on his or her own. Focus on accomplishments, not failures.
- Don’t expect perfection. If your goal is to take a family walk five days a week, and you miss a day, that’s ok. What is important is that you are making a healthy change.
- Reward yourselves. When your family has turned a healthy change into a habit, reward yourselves with a fun physical activity such as bowling, ice skating, miniature golf, or canoeing.
Make the most of family mealtime
- Eating meals together gives you a chance to help your child develop a healthy attitude toward food.
- Prepare healthy meals that the whole family eats instead of serving special foods for an overweight child. Doing this will create a positive and supportive environment.
- Schedule meals at regular intervals. Without a schedule, kids tend to snack more—and often reach for high-calorie foods.
- Eat in courses. Start with low calorie foods (fruits, vegetables, salads) and then move on to higher-calorie foods (breads, pastas, meats).
- Don't snack near mealtime. Snacks should be at least an hour away from a meal, and two to three snacks per day are enough for most children.
- Eat at least one meal together every day. If it’s difficult to get everyone together for dinner, how about breakfast? Try designating one night a week as family dinner night.
- Eat in the dining room or kitchen—not in front of the computer or television.
- Eat slowly. When we eat too quickly, the body thinks it needs more food to be satisfied. Wait a few minutes before serving seconds, and keep them small.
Make sure your child eats a balanced, healthy diet
- Eat at home. Food made at home is much healthier than fast food, especially if it's prepared from fresh ingredients. Avoid high-fat fried foods and burgers from restaurants, especially fast food outlets.
- Aim for five servings of vegetables and fruit each day. You can gradually build up to this amount. A good goal to start: eat fruit with each meal for a week.
- Reduce fat. Opt for lower-fat substitutes:
- Low-fat dairy: skim or 1% milk (after age 2). Look for lower-fat or part-skim cheese.
- Lean meats and poultry: 95% lean ground beef or turkey; remove visible fat from meat.
- Low-fat or fat-free salad dressings and mayonnaise. Use butter sparingly, or choose butter replacements made with healthy oils like olive oil.
- Limit desserts to small portions, and serve fruit with dessert. As occasional treats, serve low-fat ice cream or frozen yogurt, animal crackers, vanilla wafers, gingersnaps or graham crackers
- Eat sweet foods in moderation. If your child eats a healthy diet, one sweet a day is fine.
- Drink water, skim or 1% milk (after age 2) instead of high-calorie, sugary drinks
- Check ingredients on nutrition labels. Foods with sugar listed as one of the first three or four ingredients may be high in sugar and should be eaten in moderation
- Eat healthy snacks. Keep healthy foods on-hand for snacks. Good snack ideas include:
- Fresh fruit
- Cereal with low-fat milk
- Low-fat cheese with crackers
- Graham crackers with lightly sweetened or sugar-free hot chocolate
- Raw vegetables with low-fat dip
- Serve appropriate portions. Over-sized portions often contribute to weight gain. A typical serving of meat is about the size of a deck of cards; a serving of rice is about the size of a tennis ball.
Kids are more likely to want to be active when other family members are active too. Find ways to build physical activity step-by-step into your family routine. Here are some tips on getting family members together for physical activities:
- Go as a family. Take an after-dinner family walk three days a week or schedule a weekly Saturday afternoon trip to the pool.
- Limit television, video games, or computer time to one to two hours a day.
- Focus on fun rather than skill. If kids think of physical activity as fun they’ll be more likely to want to do it.
- Encourage playing outside with other children. Be sure where they are playing is safe.
- Use fun physical activities as a reward. When your family reaches one of its goals, celebrate with a fun, active outing you can enjoy together. Go play miniature golf, practice at a batting cage, visit a water slide park, go canoeing, hiking or ice skating.
- Include routine activity in your day. Take the stairs. Park farther away at the store and walk. Have your child participate in chores that involve physical activity such as cleaning, gardening or walking the dog.
- Vary physical activities for your kids and allow them to choose which ones they like best.
- Keep it fun for everyone. Overweight kids may not like competitive sports, so activities everyone can participate in regardless of skill may be best. If your children are interested in team sports, though, you should encourage them and help them join a local team. Activities not based on skill level include walking, biking, swimming, running, playing catch or flying a kite.
Find Out More
For more information on eating right for a better life, visit the Nutrition section of our website.