There has been a lot in the headlines lately about how to get and keep our kids healthy. On Dec. 13 of last year, President Obama signed The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act that is designed to improve the quality of school lunches. Michelle Obama has made fighting childhood obesity her number one priority-and despite Sarah Palin’s confusingly snarky remarks about this, the first lady is plowing ahead with her work on this issue. And it’s not a moment too soon. According to the Center for Disease Control, 17 percent of children in the United States are now obese, and the rates are continuing to climb at a shocking rate. Sadly, 80% of obese children will go on to become obese adults who at risk for diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure. Scarier still, we are starting to see these illnesses in children even before they reach adulthood-something that used to be extremely uncommon.
While I’m grateful to see the first lady take up this cause, I know that as parents, we can’t leave the solution to others. In today’s environment, we have to be ever vigilant to help our kids form and maintain healthy lifestyles. Here are a few simple things that you can do to make sure our kids are getting the proper nutrition and exercise that they need.
Keep Good Snacks in the House
We all know that when we feel like having a snack, we generally reach for the easiest thing, and too often the easiest thing is junk. I won’t lie-I’ve had chips and cookies in my house-but I know that if I stocked my house with these items on a regular basis, my kids would eat them-well-on a regular basis. Instead of stocking your cupboards with these easy but unhealthy snack items, look for other quick-fix snacks that will provide a healthier alternative. It is a rare day that we do not have bananas on our kitchen counter top. Other substitutes for chips and cookies include dried fruits, roasted peanuts, low-fat yogurt-and even a good old fashioned bowl of cereal.
Be careful, however. Many junk food snacks try to masquerade as one of the healthy alternatives we are looking for. In particular, beware of “fruit” snacks that are really just candy with a touch of fruit juice thrown in. Granola bars might also try to fool you. While there are desirable brands, many granola bars are just glorified candy bars. Look carefully before you toss these items in the cart to make sure you are getting what you really want for your kids.
Pay Attention to What Your Kids are Eating at School
While Michele Obama has been hard at work to get school lunch programs in order, don’t count on that being a safe zone just yet. It is likely to take months-if not years-to overhaul school lunch programs so that they are where they need to be. I will always remember one day when I went to visit my daughter at school when she was in 7th grade. I was shocked to see what she was having for lunch-a small bag of caramel corn and a fruit drink. She told me that she had not liked the look of what was being served that day, so she went through the “ala cart” line. I had erroneously assumed that my kids were getting at least a modicum of nutrition when they ate lunch at school. After this eye opening experience, my daughter and I had a talk in which she agreed to at least get a sandwich or a salad every day-not just a package of caramel corn. I also learned that her school had a computerized lunch program that allowed parents to see itemized details of how their kids’ lunch money was being spent. If you are concerned about your kids’ nutrition-and what parent isn’t-don’t overlook the school lunch aspect of their diet.
Get Your Kids Involved in Activities … But Don’t Overbook
We have all heard the statistics about how kids who are involved in extracurricular activities and sports do better in other aspects of their lives. And we know how important exercise is to children, especially in light of the statistics on obesity. Because of this, it’s tempting sign your kids up for every Taekwondo lesson and dance class in town. But ask yourself this: if you are rushing around every evening to get to classes, practices and lessons-what are you going to have for dinner? Too often, when we are overbooked, dinner comes via a drive-up window. This is not the only pitfall of overbooking. Kids-and parents-need a little downtime each day. Without some much needed relaxation, we get stressed, and stress can lead to weight gain and mood problems.
Rather than overbooking your kids with structured activities, you may want to find ways to get them active in some more relaxed ways. When my kids were younger (they are teenagers now), we got into the habit of going to the YMCA on winter evenings to swim. I found this to be a particularly amicable situation, as there was a trained life guard on duty, and I could sit and read a book by the poolside while my kids safely splashed around getting some well-needed exercise. The beauty of this was that we could plan the activity around our schedule rather than plan our schedule around the activity. Often we would bring our own snacks and sandwiches in order to avoid the vending machine and drive through pit-falls. Of course, enroll your kids in the activities and classes that they enjoy, but be careful not to overbook them at the expense of their health and your sanity.
Keeping your kids healthy can be tricky in a world where there is junk food at every turn, especially when we are so busy that we often don’t have time to plan a decent meal. But by limiting access to junk food at home, by paying attention to what is on the school lunch menu, and by keeping our kids active-while not stressing them out-we can make a good start toward creating a healthier lifestyle and environment for our kids.