One in 5 school-age children in the United States is obese, and many others are overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And even children at what is considered a healthy weight aren’t necessarily healthy.
“There is no magic diet, no one diet that is good for everyone,” said Dr. Bahareh Michelle Schweiger, a pediatric endocrinologist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.
Schweiger and Dr. Richard Brucker oversee the Step-Up Kids Weight Management Program at Cedars-Sinai. They and their colleagues, including certified diabetes educators (pre-diabetes and diabetes diagnoses in children are on the rise) work with children and their families to develop customized weight-loss and healthy-eating plans.
The Journal spoke with Schweiger — a Sherman Oaks resident, Valley Beth Shalom congregant and mother of three children — about changes families can make in their diets to improve their health. She offered the following suggestions:
Don’t Play Food Police
Going through the pantry when the kids are at school and tossing out every package of Oreo cookies and Cheez-It crackers may sound like a surefire strategy to prevent your kids from eating junk. But Schweiger advises against it. “Forbidding certain foods and trying to play police can actually be more of a draw for the kid to overeat those foods whenever they get a chance,” she said. Not to mention that it could set up an unhealthy relationship between you and your child. Instead, start with smaller, more manageable steps. And be a good role model.
Make It a Family Affair
Schweiger said she knows families are busier than ever, which often leads to eating on the fly and grabbing whatever is quick and easy. However, when families sit down to eat together, they tend to eat less-processed foods and share food that is higher in fiber. Your family can’t do weekday dinners? Try Saturday breakfast or lunch.
Involve your children, too. Let them choose their favorite fruits and vegetables at the market, or something they are open to trying, and enlist them to help prepare the meal. “They need to be part of the process,” Schweiger said. “Otherwise, there is going to be unwillingness to make any change.”
If your family likes to go out for the occasional treat, don’t go overboard. Everyone in the family can order a kiddie portion of ice cream.
Pay Attention to Portion Size
Portion sizes at some restaurants are four times bigger than what is healthy. So even if you eat only half of a serving, you could be consuming twice the portion size you really need, Schweiger said. So how do you figure out the proper serving of chicken or pasta or broccoli? Use your palm as an approximate measure, she said. And remember, since your child’s palm is likely smaller than yours, their portion size should be smaller, too.
Banish the Clean Plate Rule
Don’t expect children to eat everything on their plates. Conversely, parents should not be short-order cooks. If your child does not like what you make for dinner one night of the week, don’t whip up a special dinner just for them. If children are eating a variety of foods, they will manage. They can grab a piece of fresh fruit if they are famished.
Eat More Fruits and Vegetables
Half of your diet and your kids’ diets should be made up of fruits and vegetables. Research has found the fiber in fruits and vegetables helps to prevent certain cancers. And fruit juice isn’t a replacement. “Often, our brain doesn’t process those calories as food,” which can lead to weight issues, Schweiger said.
It can take 15, 20, even 30 introductions of a food for a child to learn to like it. A strategy to make fruits and vegetables more enticing is to serve them alongside something you know your child likes.
Eat a Healthy Breakfast
If there is one meal where many families go wrong, it is breakfast — or skipping it, Schweiger said. “You’ve already been fasting all night,” she said. “[Breakfast is] an important time to get some good nutrition in, especially before sending your kid to school. Get their metabolism up and going.” There’s research, too, that shows those who skip breakfast have an increased risk of obesity and pre-diabetes.
So what does a healthy breakfast look like? Schweiger suggests a piece of wheat toast with cream cheese, oatmeal, yogurt, or a hard-boiled egg, along with something else. Even some packaged breakfast bars are OK, she said. And cereal merits its own portion-size reminder, since many kids (and grown-ups) are in the habit of filling their bowls nearly to the brim, which could be two or three times the recommended portion, Schweiger said.
A quick snack can be healthy. Schweiger suggests a cheese stick or a portion of nuts, yogurt or hummus. Try putting out a plate of fresh fruit or veggies when you know your kids are going to be hungry — like when they get home from school. “They are more likely to grab it, as opposed to going to the cupboard and opening up a processed snack,” Schweiger said. If you are going to provide crackers or something similar, measure out a portion size and put it in a baggie. Eating directly out of a box is an invitation to overeat.
Also, make sure an after-school snack doesn’t turn into a full meal. It’s nice to be hungry come dinnertime.
Ditch the Electronics
Electronics and mealtime are not an ideal pairing. If your child has a smartphone, make sure it’s not part of the dinner party. That goes for Mom and Dad, too. If you are texting or watching YouTube videos at mealtime, you are not paying attention to the food you are eating and “You end up eating a lot more food,” Schweiger said.
Special Considerations for Jewish Kids
Protein should be a part of most meals. “It can help make you feel full longer and keep your blood sugar more stabilized,” Schweiger said. But some Jewish schools don’t allow students to bring meat in their lunches. If a child also has a nut allergy, it could make it difficult to get enough protein during the day. Schweiger recommends hummus and avocado as good sources of protein.
In keeping with the recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Schweiger said children should get 60 minutes of moderate physical activity a day. The exercise doesn’t need to be done at one time. It can include, for example, walking to school, playing at recess, or participating in a dance class.
Of course, many kids don’t walk to school, and some may spend their recess on their smartphone. If your child loves electronics, Schweiger recommends they do 15 minutes of “Just Dance,” a popular game available for various platforms, or even 20 jumping jacks here and there. She also is a fan of many exercise videos geared for children. One of her favorite series is “Instant Recess,” available on YouTube.
It is important to be patient when looking for weight-loss results.
“This isn’t a quick fix,” Schweiger said. “There are always ways to be healthier and eat healthier.”