Secrets of raising healthy eaters

The mere thought of transforming your family from a junk-food-munching, meal-on-the-go-eating, inadequately exercising bunch into one that’s, well, not those things can be pretty daunting.

But you’d be surprised by the impact even the most minor changes can make, say James Hill, MD, and Susan J. Crockett, PhD, RD, FADA, authors of Betty Crocker’s Win at Weight Loss Cookbook: A Healthy Guide for the Whole Family.

They stress that healthy eating habits are family business – and good habits start with the decisions you make. Read on for five manageable changes you can begin to make today – sure to inspire independent, food-savvy young adults down the road.

Let them choose

With 16 percent of children ages 6 to 19 overweight or obese, weight management is a serious issue.

Dr. Hill and Dr. Crockett stress that raising healthy teens and adults starts young – and with letting kids be responsible for their own food choices. “There’s a division of responsibility,” Dr. Crockett says. “Parents must start out by bringing healthy food into the home, but a child needs to be responsible for when and what he eats.”

Why it works: Eventually kids will be selecting parts of their meals and snacks, whether at school or at friends’ homes. Giving them the responsibility to do so at home (and making sure their choices are sound) will help them make the right decisions in other settings.

Stock smart snacks

Snacks are an inevitable – and necessary – part of eating for both kids and adults. Keeping healthy snacks on hand is beyond logical, but it’s not enough to keep fruits and veggies stocked in the fridge – you have to make them accessible and appealing to kids. Maybe you’ll eat a whole apple, but your kids will only go for slices. They have to be easily available, says Dr. Crockett: on the counter, washed and ready to eat. While “treats” are okay (we’ll get to that in a bit), be sure to always have healthy staples handy, such as whole grain crackers, yogurt, breakfast cereal and low-fat peanut butter.

Why it works: “People snack,” says Dr. Hill, “and if you have
bad stuff around, that’s what gets eaten.” Sometimes a hungry kid home from school will literally eat the first thing he sees, so better that be carrots and hummus than chips and dip.

Set sensible limits “I’m not a big fan of ‘never,'” says Dr. Hill. However, realistic limits are important. Treating junk food as forbidden fruit makes it all the more likely kids will binge when they have free rein to do so, but you can stipulate the “how often and how much,” says Dr. Crockett. Here are some things to consider:

• Buy treats, such as cookies and soda, in limited quantities and explain that when they run out, they run out. Don’t replenish during every grocery run.

• Emphasize the idea of eating only when hungry by not offering up snacks unless your kids ask. (If they’re hungry, they will!)

• Limit where snacks can be eaten – e.g., not in the car or in front of the computer or TV.

Why it works: When you allow even the most indulgent foods on occasion, kids won’t feel deprived. But when you set basic limits on what, when and where to eat, kids will learn they can’t have it all and need to decide for themselves how to “budget.”

Size up portions “It’s a common mistake to overestimate portion sizes,” says Dr. Crockett. She recommends using the “one tablespoon” rule for kids up to ages 9 or 10. Serve one tablespoon for every year of the child’s age. So, for a meal that consists of carrots, meatballs and rice, a one-year-old would get one tablespoon of each, a three-year-old would get three tablespoons of each and so on.

Why it works: “If a child asks for more food, then give her more,” says Dr. Crockett. But it’s better to start with less, because you’ll ensure that your child only eats when she’s hungry and not just because something’s on her plate.

Realize they are what you eat (and do)

Quite possibly the easiest and most effective change you can make stems directly from your actions. Guarantee that your kids will observe your good behavior with family meals and active outings. Family dinners are healthy in more ways than one: A new study out of Syracuse University found that the rituals and routines in family mealtimes help establish identity and are good for mental health too.

But in terms of actionable behavior, if you want your kids to stop drinking so much soda, you shouldn’t guzzle down pop regularly either. Don’t encourage playing outdoors while you’re catching up on TiVo – it’s far more effective if you’re running around with them.

Why it works: Kids are amazingly perceptive. While you’re not expected to become a model eater overnight, start by making the same changes you expect of your kids. “You have the greatest ability to influence by what you do, not what you tell them to do,” says Dr. Hill.