New Foods and Family Meals
7. "I give up. My 8-year-old truly loathes vegetables."
It really does take between ten and 20 tastes for a child to warm up to a new food, which means tons of rejection for the cook along the way. "In our house, I suggest that everyone at least taste new foods that are offered," says Dr. Jana. "We call it the 'No-thank-you bite.' They don't have to eat more. That way they at least have to try a little." Meanwhile, experiment with sneaking grated vegetables into sauces and meat loaf, or buying fruit-juice blends that contain vegetables. (Just be mindful of serving sizes; fruit juice can be highly caloric.)
8. "I know family meals tend to be healthier, but it's close to impossible for us to pull them off."
Research shows that families who eat together have a much lower incidence of obesity, says Jamieson-Petonic. The good news is that it doesn't matter which meal it is. Start small and try to schedule three family meals per week. A new study from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign reports that those three meals have a major impact, reducing the odds of children becoming overweight by 12 percent and increasing the likelihood of kids eating healthy foods by 24 percent. (As kids get older, having meals together lowers the risk of disordered eating by 35 percent.)
9. "My son finishes his dinner in 90 seconds or less. An hour later, he says he's hungry again."
Children, like adults, take about 20 minutes to accurately assess how full they are. To the average 4-year-old, 20 minutes can seem like two hours, so there's often a major disconnect between what's happening in his brain -- as in "I'm staaaarving!" or "I'm bored now, so I must be full" -- and what's actually in his belly.
The secret to slowing down mealtime? "Have fun at the dinner table," says pediatrician Laura Jana, M.D., coauthor of Food Fights. "Keep it light. Play games." For example, the whole family can try eating with their nondominant hand or with chopsticks. Ask questions about your child's day to slow the pace of the meal. You can also encourage kids to sip water or milk between bites, and try serving food in courses once in a while, to teach kids that, at least sometimes, they can eat at a more leisurely, mindful pace.
Special Needs, Special Problems
It's even trickier for kids with special needs to maintain a healthy weight because of mobility limitations, medication side effects, and food aversions. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that children with disabilities are 38 percent more likely to be obese.
If you have a child with special needs, daily routines are especially important. For kids who are mobile, running games, walking to destinations, swimming, and bike riding are all good ways to increase activity levels. If you're not part of a special-needs family but have friends who are -- or even if you see some kids in the park -- make an effort to start playground games that include them too.
The Right Game for Every Kid
While all children need about 60 minutes of activity per day to stay healthy, encouraging a heavy child to move more isn't easy. By age 4, children are already developing a physical concept of themselves, and by age 5 they start to get self-conscious about their weight. Many heavier kids are shy about group play and need coaxing. Try involving your child in these activities:
- Playground classics, like hopscotch, jumping rope, and monkey bars
- Martial-arts classes, which are a fun group activity but also encourage individual improvement and calorie-burning calisthenics
- Golf or tennis, which improve focus and skill
- Walking with a pedometer. Kids love the immediate feedback. A good goal for kids 6 and older is roughly 12,000 steps per day.
Originally published in the September 2012 issue of Parents magazine.