Tips from nutritionist and dietitian moms on how they fostered their own kids’ healthy habits
By Beverly Burmeier | Edited by Amanda Mauceri
Conventional wisdom says that childhood habits carry over to adulthood, so now’s the time to get kids thinking about health. (Relying solely on hiding pureed veggies in their food won’t cut it anymore.)
Strategies abound, however, for educating kids about health, nutrition and fitness. We’ve turned to specific sources that are doubly-qualified and who can provide some of the best insights into promoting childhood health. These sources are moms who are also nutritionists, dietitians and other healthcare professionals. At home, these women apply the strategies they have embraced in their careers. For them, health and nutrition truly is a full-time endeavor.
Encouraging Kids to Try New Foods
“You don’t have to eat everything you love, and you don’t have to love everything you eat.” That advice from Kimberly Evans, a registered dietitian in Burlington, Vermont, is good for both children and adults. “Kids learn by example, so it’s up to parents to model healthy eating and exercise habits,” adds the marathoner mother of five (ages 7 to 15), who helps athletes maximize their potential through good nutritional habits.
Children need to see, touch and become familiar with new healthy foods before trying them, she says. If parents can make this a fun family adventure, children will become comfortable with new tastes.
Children can say “no, thank you” at the Evans house, but they must try at least a bite of anything offered. When Evans’ oldest son was five years old, he turned up his nose at asparagus but dutifully stuck a piece in his baguette to take that bite. “What happened next was not a pretty sight,” she says, recalling how he quickly ran to the bathroom in disgust. “The fact he hadn’t actually taken a bite of the asparagus at all, and had to try again, helped him understand how powerful thoughts can be. He never balked again.”
Rather than just talking about weight and exercise, Evans suggests discussing why a healthy body is important. Explain how we need calcium for bones, protein for energy and grains for alertness.
Involve kids in food shopping and encourage them to read labels. When a package of chocolate dip next to strawberries caught the eye of Evans’ seven-year-old, she suggested he read the label. He found all sorts of unappealing ingredients. “How will you feel when you eat that?” she asked, and then offered an alternative – melted chocolate chips as a dip. “When kids think about how what they eat makes them feel,” Evans says, “the rest is easy.
Setting a Marathon Example
Growing up with a mom who runs marathons and does triathlons might be daunting for many kids. But for Minnesota mom Kara Thom’s four young children, training sessions are a normal part of life.
It wasn’t always that way. When her twins were born eight years ago, Thom looked forward to spending a few moments alone while pursuing fitness activities. Then she realized the girls were emulating her lifestyle in their creative play; they imagined running races and going to the gym in addition to playing school or house. Thom transitioned from the “me-time” frame of mind to accepting her role as a model for her children.
“I wrote See Mom Run to help balance my roles as a mom and an athlete,” says this author of several fitness books. When training for her first marathon after having kids, Thom didn’t think her preschoolers really understood what Mom was doing until one daughter asked her to read See Mom Run the night before that race. Recently, another daughter asked, “Will your book still be alive when I’m a mommy so I can read it?”
This book will come in handy because it’s a sure bet the Thom children will be active adults. The eight-year-old twins participated in their first triathlon last summer and the six-year-old is already planning her debut next year. “They like being active – they roller skate, ride bikes and climb trees,” Thom says.
“We do active things because it’s fun for the family.”
To spark their interest even further, Thom’s older girls have watches that monitor how many minutes of medium-to-vigorous activity they engage in during the day. “It provides a little healthy competition,” Thom says.
“Parents should exercise themselves, exercise with their children, and help kids find their own fitness passions,” Thom says. Her children already reflect this healthy philosophy.
Mary Jayne Johnson
Showing Interest in Children’s Activities
“Children learn three ways – by example, by example, by example,” a friend told Albuquerque-based exercise physiologist, Mary Jayne Johnson, PhD, when her now-grown children were young. As a mom, Pilates instructor and spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise, Johnson shares that advice with her clients.
“Because of my career, my children saw my own desire to be healthy through exercise and good nutrition,” Johnson says. They incorporated movement into family time; a visit to the park found Mom on swings with the kids. They walked and rode bikes together in good weather and hula-hooped indoors during winter.
Kids don’t move much at school, Johnson says, so parents need to provide opportunities at home. Parents who are not in the habit of exercising should reflect on why they don’t, and think about ways to encourage family fun and bonding through movement.
“If children take an interest in an activity, be sure to show an extraordinary interest and help them develop their abilities,” she says. When her daughter was only two years old, Johnson noticed that she was very strong on the monkey bars, so she enrolled her in a gymnastics class. She won awards and eventually landed a college scholarship. “When a friend’s daughter took up rock climbing, the parents also learned how, and now the family enjoys rock-climbing vacations together,” Johnson adds.
“Teach children to read labels when shopping and to choose vegetables and fruits just as you teach them to brush their teeth,” Johnson says. “Social and cultural influences may increase the challenge, but parents still teach best by example.”