Obesity in children: tips for parents

Reading time: 11 min

Thanks to our hyper-connected world, parents are more aware than ever before about the rising rates of obesity, taboo ingredients in our food and the plethora of studies linking poor diets to behavioural and social problems. It’s no wonder that we approach the process of nourishing our children with anxiety and concern that we may do something that could very well end up harming them. It can become more than a little overwhelming when you think about everything you should be doing to instil healthy eating habits in your child.

With a fussy four-year-old who has refused to eat almost anything green since the age of two, I am all too familiar with questioning if my own actions have in some way influenced his eating habits. While arguably some children may be naturally healthier and more adventurous eaters than others, there are some measures that parents can take to ensure that their little ones establish a healthy relationship with food.

1. Establish set meal and snack times

The key benefit of set mealtimes is that it establishes hunger cues for your child through a sense of routine. Children should be getting in three main meals daily (breakfast, lunch and supper) with two to three small snacks (mid-morning, mid-afternoon and an optional snack before bedtime).

An absence of routine in eating has been shown to lead to a diet lacking in key nutrients and is something that can be avoided with both set mealtimes and a wholesome diet. It goes without saying that children who are hungry – never too hungry or their irritability will backfire on your efforts – are more likely to sit down to a meal and try what you have prepared for them. Without set mealtimes and a constant feeling of fullness due to all-day-snacking, your child isn’t given a real chance to feel hungry, which means that they are a lot less likely to take part in family mealtimes.

“Studies have linked screen time to childhood obesity due to the hypnotic effect and ‘zoning out’ that many devices have on kids.”

Snacks play an incredibly important role with young children given that their little tummies struggle to get in everything they need from three main meals. Offer healthy snacks to fill a substantial nutrient gap by providing the right kind of nutrients in the form of things like wholegrain crackers, wholegrain cereal, sugar-free nut butter, sliced fruit and veggies, hummus, cheese, yoghurt and dried fruit. With the number of healthy snacks, made from a variety of nutrient-rich ingredients and found on the shelves of many grocery stores, there are so many ways to provide a healthy and convenient on-the-go snack for your little one (making sure to always check ingredient labels to avoid any unnecessary ingredients).

Parents should stick to a meal schedule as often as possible, sitting down to meals and signalling the end of a meal by asking even the youngest children to take their plates to the kitchen or to help tidy up in some way. This needs to be followed by the rest of the family if you want a chance at success with young ones (trying to explain why mom and dad are allowed a snack but your little one has to wait until their snack time, is not something that will go down well!).

2. Watch their fluid intake

Snacks all day, whether in the form of food or liquids, lead to children feeling full throughout the day. To add insult to injury, fluids offered right before mealtimes (and not at set snack times) are a sure way to dull an appetite.

It is common for young children to consume a lot of unnecessary calories from fluids, which may lead to weight gain or conversely children who aren’t eating enough nutritional foods throughout the day. Only offer milk or diluted fruit juice as part of a set snack time and rather offer water to quench their thirst throughout the day. Experts recommend that liquids, including milk, are served after meals and that no more that 4oz (around 110ml) of liquid should be served with the main meal for kids aged four and up.

3. Minimise distractions

It is an extremely common practice for families to rely on distractions to keep the peace around mealtimes – whether the TV, iPad, phone, games or toys – just to get children to take a few bites without a battle. The problem with this is that these distractions are exactly as the name suggests: while they may work in the short-term, they distract little ones from learning about and understanding their own appetites.

Studies have linked screen time to childhood obesity due to the hypnotic effect and ‘zoning out’ that many devices have on kids. The result is that children aren’t paying attention to what is going into their mouths and hence the reason why so many parents turn to screen time to get their kids to ‘cooperate’ during mealtimes in the first place. If parents want to create a setting for children to become attuned to their tastes and satiety (feelings of fullness), distractions should, in fact, be kept to a minimum.

It’s important to remember to get children to associate mealtimes with the right kind of positive experiences and memories, is that mealtimes should be about family time. Research shows that children are more likely to eat a meal when other children or family members are eating.

Small steps that can be taken to get your child to associate mealtimes with no distractions:

  • Consider trying a meal without any distractions and wait for your child to ask for the TV/iPad before getting it out. You may be surprised!
  • Start by limiting screen/distraction time to a few minutes of the meal – reducing the amount of time slowly – in order to condition your child to getting through a meal without constant entertainment.
  • Select certain meals where distractions are permitted (i.e. snack time) and other meals where they are not (i.e. main meals). Whatever you do, ensure consistency as often as possible to establish a routine.
  • Provide a new (and healthier) form of distraction by chatting animatedly to your child, asking about their day or recalling something that makes them smile.
  • Get your little one more interested in what is on their plate by talking to them about the various foods – describing the textures, tastes, smells and colours – or have fun with food creations (stringing fruit onto a kebab stick or creating a smiley face out of pieces of veggies).
  • Practise what you preach by turning off your own phone or laptop to engage in conversation with your child to set a good example.

Attempting to undo a bad habit takes more time than learning that bad habit to begin with and will be met with resistance, but with perseverance and consistency, you’ll establish eating habits in your home that allow for fewer distractions and a whole lot more family engagement.

4. Avoid bribes

Studies have shown that bribing is a pressure-causing and counterproductive feeding tactic that has been proven to cause children to feel uncomfortable and overwhelmed.

“Remember that it is your job as a parent to decide what and when to feed your child, however, it is your child’s choice to decide whether and how much they eat.”

In the instances of bribing with treats, experts call out the negativity where parents leverage food in a way that either makes a child feel good or bad about themselves, resulting in the development of negative associations with a particular food. Remember that children need to feel hungry to know when to eat and by offering them that biscuit, chocolate, sweet or another treat to encourage ‘positive’ behaviour, you aren’t teaching your child to listen to their body.

Whether to please you or to avoid punishment, you don’t want your child to learn to eat for all the wrong reasons: something that will no doubt stand in the way of them developing a healthy awareness of their own internal cues around food. Remember that it is your job as a parent to decide what and when to feed your child, however, it is your child’s choice to decide whether and how much they eat.

5. Strive to offer a diet rich in variety

Just because your child prefers to eat certain foods, it doesn’t mean that you should steer clear from offering them anything new entirely. In fact, no matter how tedious, parents need to continue to offer a variety of foods even though children are more likely to eat their usual favourites. As with any particular type of food that a child repeatedly steers away from, parents should not avoid serving these foods altogether. It is important that your child continues to be exposed to the less preferred options even if only to look at on their plate. Be sure to serve these up with other favourite foods to ensure a better chance at gaining their acceptance.

Instead of avoiding food groups altogether, it is rather recommended for parents to strive to provide their little ones with a diet rich in variety: providing your child with a wholesome balanced diet, made-up primarily of whole and unprocessed foods, including a variety of fruit, vegetables, grains, fish, poultry, low-fat dairy and lean cuts of meat (for children younger than 2 years, you want to choose higher-fat dairy and meat options to sustain their developmental needs).

If starchy foods are still the order of the day, there are smart ways to go about which ones to serve up to ensure that your choices are as nutritious as possible: instead of choosing nutritionally-empty white varieties, which lack a healthy dose of vitamins and minerals, opt for whole-wheat, brown, wholegrain and rye varieties wherever possible and consider some other healthy grain options like quinoa or brown couscous.

While some kids totally love eating their veggies and will happily munch away on broccoli stem after broccoli stem, others – much to many a parent’s dismay – simply don’t. This doesn’t mean that a child can’t get in enough of the right vitamins and minerals in their diet through smart and creative ways. By chopping veggies into tiny pieces and adding them to things like casseroles, sauces, soups and stews or by tossing them into smoothies, you can sneak in some additional nutrients in delicious ways.

6. Allow indulgence

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that children between the ages of two and 18 should consume no more than six teaspoons a day (where 4g = 1 teaspoon), with the World Health Organisation recommending that no more than 5% of your child’s daily calories come from added sugar.

With the amount of added sugars in a number of ready-made foods, sauces, condiments, salad dressings, cereals and more, children eating a diet high in these foods are at risk of developing tooth decay, other nasties like weakened immune systems and being overweight. With the daily sugar limit in mind, it is advised that parents should become aware of the ingredients on food labels of packaged goods and try to limit foods with sugars listed as among the first ingredients.

Sugary sweets have their place in teaching children about balance and are even regarded as helpful in getting children to branch out to try different tastes in a healthy balanced diet. That is not to say that parents should give in to every sugary demand from their kids but rather to allow them the chance to indulge at a specific time and place.

Sweet treats don’t always need to be reserved for special occasions and rather healthy sweet treats can be offered more regularly. Get creative with things like fruit-sweetened muffins or biscuits, granola bars with dried fruit pieces or date squares. With the endless number of healthy recipes at one’s fingertips, there is no excuse not to feed your child’s sweet tooth in tasty and nutritious ways!

Before making any drastic decisions about removing food groups from your child’s diet, speak to a medical professional to guide you in way that will most benefit your child and ensure that they are still getting enough of all the right nutrients in their diets.

Written by Tenielle Maris. For more on a balanced diet for your little one and a guideline on portion sizes, as well as healthy sweet treat inspiration, read further here on Hungry Little Monkey.