The turning of the calendar to a new year brings with it a clean slate, including a chance to tune up your family’s eating habits. It’s a challenge that you shouldn’t face alone, because success only comes with a whole-family approach. And what you need isn’t a few dietary changes, but a new relationship to food, according to Registered Dietitian Nutritionists Shannon Martin and Rana Parker. They’ve been guiding patients as young as preschool for more than two decades.
During the pandemic that dominated 2020, many families saw an increase in unhealthy eating, a decrease in exercise and an increase in screen time for their kids. If these habits persist, the whole family is at risk for developing high cholesterol, high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes, which increases risk of heart disease, stroke and certain types of cancer. The weight gain that can result can also be tough on the body. Parker says that every extra pound of weight causes five pounds of added stress on the knees. Over time, that adds up.
How can you make changes in 2021 that will last well into the future? Martin, Parker and health psychologist Beth Braun, Ph.D., offer some solid, practical advice.
Make changes together
Meeting this challenge takes the entire family. If someone in the household is focused on losing weight, it’s important not to single them out. “We’re trying to get the whole family to eat healthy together,” Parker says. “It’s not like, ‘You’re overweight, so you need to eat healthy. You need to exercise.’ We all need to exercise. We all need to eat healthy.”
So, look at adopting a healthier lifestyle as a whole-family endeavor that goes far beyond just eating more vegetables and less junk. Use the changing calendar as a reason to make lasting changes that set your youngest family members up for future success. “The earlier that kids form healthy habits, the less likely they are to have disordered eating and an unhealthy relationship with food,” says Braun.
Rethink your approach to eating
“If you’re addicted to drugs, cigarettes, alcohol or gambling, you can choose to not do those things again,” says Martin. “You can’t give up food like you give up cigarettes. You have to learn how to have a healthy relationship with food several times a day, every day for the rest of your life.”
Martin recalls working with a 9-year-old girl who was overweight and, as a result, having significant pain in her knees. One day, the girl sat down in front of the television with a family-size bag of potato chips. When the show that she was watching was over, the girl noticed that the bag was empty and she could not believe it. Even worse, she hardly recalled enjoying the chips she was mindlessly consuming.
“Our goal is to get you to have a good relationship with food, but also to enjoy your food,” Parker says. “That kid, I doubt she even remembers anything about eating those chips. She didn’t even know she ate them. If you eat more mindfully and slowly, you actually enjoy it more.”
Mindful eating means uninterrupted eating focused completely on the food. “Instead of just wolfing it down, mindfulness entails eating slowly and appreciating that food, realizing that when you eat food it’s a part of you forever,” Martin says. “To eat mindfully is to eat undistracted, to eat slowly and to use all five of your senses when you’re eating. It’s a really good tip to eat fewer calories, paying attention to fullness and stopping when you are full even if there is still food remaining on your plate.”
Clean up your plate
Martin stresses the importance of cooking healthy meals at home, following the healthy-plate model. This means filling half of the plate with fresh fruits and vegetables, a quarter with lean protein and the remaining quarter with whole grains. Eating this way takes some preparation and calls for all hands on deck, so that parents are bringing into the home foods that kids like to eat.
Each weekend, sit down as a family and talk about what you’re going to eat during the upcoming week. Make a plan and put together a grocery list that includes everyone’s input. Move away from processed foods and toward unprocessed foods. Lessen your dependence on prepackaged meals and choose foods that may take a little bit more time to cook but are far healthier. Increase fruit and vegetable servings without much extra work by purchasing precut, prewashed fruits and vegetables. Frozen fruits and vegetables are also good options.
When it’s time to cook, get everyone involved. Even young kids can help with the food preparation by washing fruits and vegetables.
Clean up your act between meals as well. We’re on a “see-food” diet. We eat what we see. Oftentimes parents will say, “We can’t eat healthy because the kids want to have the soda and chips.” Well, why are the soda and chips in the house? When kids open the fridge, they need to see fruits and vegetables instead of junk food.
Try getting in ‘KidShape’
Martin and Parker recently joined Braun and Registered Dietitian Nutritionist Christiane Rivard in the relaunch of KidShape Wellness. This family-based wellness program, which was an in-person program in the 1990s, has been reimagined as an interactive online program. The curriculum is research backed and kid focused.
KidShape’s goal is to help pre-teens who are overweight and more sedentary than usual to embrace healthy eating, exercise and mental wellness to achieve a more balanced lifestyle. Participants can choose up to a 12-week program, where new behaviors are adopted and become a part of everyday life. In the first iteration of KidShape, participants were able to lose weight 87% of the time. Two years later, 80% had kept the weight off.
Getting young people to incorporate exercise along with improved eating habits is important. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends 60 minutes of exercise per day for kids. That can include such cost-effective options as walking or running, bike rides, dance video games, putting on music and dancing as a family or even jumping rope.
“Today, kids are spending too much time sitting still in front of a screen. We need to creatively engage kids in activities that inspire fun and movement in a digital-dominated world,” Rivard says.
The end goal is better health for all. “We want to help families learn, think and eat in a healthier way to set them up for long, happy and healthy lives,” says Braun. “We’ve seen many young people who were on the road to serious health issues make these impactful changes to set them up for a much brighter future. It’s within all of us to do it. We’re just here to give parents the real information and the tools to help them create a well-rounded family environment for their kids to thrive.”
Jorge Martin is an L.A.-based consultant, host of the Familia FFB podcast and father of three.