Obesity and peace at the table

Whether you’re a Nebraska parent or the First Lady of the United States, you probably are aware that childhood obesity is a growing problem that should be  at the top of our collective parenting priority lists.

There are bigger issues at stake here than whether you succeed in getting your child to eat green vegetables. As parents, we have our work cut out for us.

It can seem, though, like the root causes of the obesity epidemic fall far outside of parental control – from the billions spent marketing unhealthy foods to children and the inadequacies of school lunch programs to and cuts in school physical education programs.

Parents have the ability, however, to significantly shape their children’s eating habits, teach them a healthier approach to food, and ultimately impact their overall health and nutrition. It takes quite a bit of parental effort and commitment, but it’s well worth the effort.

There’s a cornucopia of nutrition resources that will help parents figure out exactly how much calcium or vitamin D a child per day, what types of fats to avoid, and even how to serve your child’s nutrition up on a proportionally pleasing plate.

The problem is that few things are harder than getting a child to open his mouth when he doesn’t want to. Instilling healthy eating habits in our children isn’t just about knowing what we should be serving our kids – an admittedly very important first step in the right direction – but figuring out how to get them to play along.

To help you, I want to share a few of the 10 overarching peacekeeping strategies my Food Fights co-author and I distilled. The strategies help arm all parents the skills and approaches necessary to wage war on the childhood obesity epidemic – one French fry, grocery store meltdown or food refusal at a time.

Don’t fight over food. Mealtime was never meant to be contentious. No matter how much you commit yourself to instilling healthy eating habits, vow never to turn the dinner table into a battlefield. Commit to basic ground rules about how you’re going to approach food, and then apply them calmly and consistently.

Never let them see you sweat. Don’t let your child know just how much parental self-worth you have resting on whether he eats a bite of broccoli. Studies show that the more you blatantly “push” healthy foods, the more likely your child is to resist. Conversely, the more that foods are restricted, the more likely children are to want them (and eat them when given the chance). It’s simply your job to place healthy foods in front of your child, and your child’s job to decide how much to eat.

Try, try…try, try again. Calmly offering new and healthy foods on a regular and repeated basis makes a real difference in whether your child accepts them. Try the low-key approach of teaching children to ask for “No, thank you” bites. Children get to retain a sense of control, know that they will not be forced to eat, and you accomplish your goal of exposing them to new foods.

Out of sight, out of mind. When it comes to your child wanting, begging and whining for unhealthy foods in lieu of healthier ones, remember that you control what foods come into your home. If you don’t want your child begging for it, then don’t buy it. Of course trips to the grocery store, visits to the grandparents, and child care (all topics addressed in detail in Food Fights) can all pose more of a challenge and will require additional consideration.

Eat by example. From the time you enter parenthood, your children will be watching you, and they’re far more likely to eat as you do than as you say.

With that said, I wish you and your entire family good health and a lifetime of “peas and homini!”