Little Kids, Big Problems

New House Rules

Morganne cooking

One of the first moves was letting the kids know that Mom and Dad weren't just paying lip service to eating healthier -- they meant it. While the children were never allowed to eat in their bedroom (and TVs were forbidden there, in large part to discourage snacking), Morganne had been sneaking treats, and her parents started taking it seriously.

Next, at the suggestion of Dr. Vande Kappelle and the dietitian, they targeted beverages, cutting back on soda and juice, and offering more water and skim milk instead. "Sometimes, we give the kids CapriSun Roarin' Water. It's about 30 calories a pouch, and they all love it," Marianne says. They didn't give up juice altogether, but Marianne watched how much the kids drank more closely and began experimenting with vegetable juices, including V8 V-Fusion.

Both parents made an effort to model better eating themselves, which Mike says has been challenging, conceding that his habits are "really poor." "I have to make a conscious effort to make better choices around them," he admits.

Marianne started smartening up family meals. While the kids still occasionally get the buttered noodles they love, they've switched to high-fiber, high-calcium Ronzoni Smart Taste pasta, and I Can't Believe It's Not Butter! spread, made with heart- healthier fats. New rules govern treats too. They didn't banish their favorite cookies -- but they watch portions very carefully. "And when one of the kids celebrates a birthday, we make a big deal about getting a cake. Morganne gets a slice, because she deserves it as much as everyone else. I never deprive her," says Marianne.

In fact, she says, treating everyone the same way is her most important rule. "Everyone is allowed to eat the same things. I knew we couldn't single Morganne out."

"I wasn't thrilled at first," admits Meganne, 11. "But I knew we had to do it for Morganne. And I like having new foods now. I had a turkey wrap in my lunch today that was really good."

Building a Fitter Family

Adding activity and exercise has been tougher. Marianne quickly learned that finding one solution that worked for all five of them was practically impossible. For one thing, they couldn't agree on what to do. Golf would be Mike's choice, which is not exactly kid-friendly. The family had had a membership at the YMCA but didn't go enough to make it worth the money. "I'd joke that it was my $78 monthly swim," Marianne says.

Meanwhile, Mike has a demanding work schedule with lots of special events. He's on his feet all day, and comes home beat. Marianne, on the other hand, works behind a desk and wants to get moving when she gets home from work. Now that Meganne is in middle school, she has to keep up with her violin and French classes, plus both she and Morganne are Girl Scouts. And the fact that Mitchell is a toddler adds a logistical wrinkle to everything the family does.

Still, Marianne set a goal for of 60 minutes of exercise for everyone, every day. And while they don't often reach that goal, they're working on it. Mike, who joins in on family bike rides when he can, keeps everyone's tires pumped up. Marianne hitches Mitchell's trailer to her bike, and she and Morganne pedal to the local high school and back, a 2-mile trip. On bad-weather days, they play Wii. "We're trying to be active together whenever we can," Mike says. "We just bought a pool, so the kids can spend a lot more time swimming." And Morganne keeps an activity log: "She loves filling out what she does every day," says her mom.

Teaching Healthier Choices

While the whole family needs to focus on health, Morganne's issues require special attention, and her parents are working to help her develop better decision-making skills. That way, she'll achieve a healthier BMI as she grows, and have rock-solid habits by the time she enters her teens. This means teaching her to think about what she's eating. "When she's hungry, I'll ask, 'What are you hungry for?' and that's an important conversation. The point is to get her talking about her choices," Marianne explains. "When she asks for seconds, it's the same thing: 'What do you think would fill you up? What is the healthiest choice?' I don't want her to be obsessed with food or feel that she's being singled out or punished. I won't be so restrictive that I encourage closet eating. When parents are too strict, kids can develop eating disorders, and that's as scary as obesity." But it's all paying off, in Morganne's growing ability to control herself, says Marianne. "She's starting to be able to say things like, "Okay, Mom, that's enough -- I don't want any more."

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