Reversing the Trend
Fortunately, there are ways to change your family's behavior. For starters, consider how often you give snacks to your child. Toddlers and preschoolers can go two to three hours between meals and snacks, older kids three to four. As much as you can, avoid on-the-go snacks -- in the car and the stroller, in the shopping cart, or as you're going out the door. "Grazing this way makes it harder for kids to eat the right amount because they're so distracted," says Dr. Rowell. Mindless eaters don't have the chance to really savor food or pay attention to their body's hunger or fullness signals, so they often end up over- or under eating.
The foods you serve as snacks should be just as nutritious as the ones you serve at meals, says David Katz, M.D., director of Yale University's Prevention Research Center. As for the munchies your child gets everywhere else, that's a tougher battle to win -- but not impossible. Start by bringing fruits and veggies when it's your turn to be snack mom. If you think a gathering doesn't warrant a snack, suggest to the organizer that you skip it entirely (most parents welcome the chance to downsize their to-do list). Talk to the other parents in your child's class, team, or club about your concerns. Chances are, there are like-minded mothers and fathers who simply haven't spoken up.
Casey Hinds, of Lexington, Kentucky, hated the fact that her kindergartner's school constantly rewarded the class with candy, ice cream, and pizza parties. "We have a family history of diabetes, so we considered those 'once in a while' treats," she says. Hinds instead brought fruits and vegetables for class parties and joined the school's advisory group, where she worked to strengthen the school's wellness policy. She admits she got some pushback from parents, but she didn't let it stop her. "Kids aren't in the position to speak up for themselves, so we have to do it for them," says Hinds, adding that most children won't turn down a beautiful fruit tray. Ask the principal or director at your own child's school if there is a policy about healthy eating and exercise -- and if you can, volunteer to help in some way. All schools that receive government funding for school lunches must have a wellness policy in place. Though preschools don't have the same requirement, many at least have guidelines about nutrition. "Preschool directors are typically very receptive to parents' concerns about food," says Kathryn Henderson, Ph.D., director of school and community initiatives at the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University. Just be sure to come with concrete suggestions, not simply complaints.
Experts agree that the only way to create real change is for moms and dads to speak up -- both at school and at home. "It's a lot easier to just give in and let your children eat this junk," acknowledges Dr. Popkin. "But parents need to take on the battle and either create healthy snacks or get angry and not allow their kids to eat so frequently between meals. They need to do something about it."