A lot of diet programs ask people to transform the way they eat and make these major changes overnight. Not surprisingly, most individuals have trouble sticking to those kinds of dramatic shifts in their diets, particularly over the long term. Eating habits develop over many years, and they can be hard to change. For that reason, our recommendations here are quite different. When it comes to your child, you need to help her make gradual, small changes in her eating habits over a period of time. Introduce 1 or 2 changes a week. She’ll find those kinds of changes—a little at a time—are the easiest kinds to make. Here are some ideas to help make this transition in slow and steady increments. For example, it could mean eating out at restaurants less often—perhaps twice a week rather than 4 or 5 times a week. Or you might order a small hamburger or grilled chicken sandwich for your child rather than the titanic-sized burger. Here are some other suggestions for incremental dietary changes.
- Introduce new, healthier foods over a period of time. Some children are resistant to try any new food; it may take multiple attempts before they develop a taste for it.
- Evaluate what snack foods your family is eating, and gradually move them in the direction of healthier alternatives—for example, unsalted pretzels rather than potato chips, air-popped popcorn instead of cookies, and frozen juice bars (without added sugar) instead of ice cream.
- Serve salads more often, and choose low-fat salad dressing. Teach children about an appropriate amount of salad dressing to use and how they can order it on the side at restaurants.
- When making sandwiches, use low-fat meats (eg, turkey ham, turkey) and see if your child notices the difference.
- Switch from mayonnaise and other high-fat spreads to reduced-fat varieties. Use spreads sparingly and teach your child to do the same.
- Try out a child-friendly vegetarian recipe for spaghetti or lasagna, using vegetables instead of meat, along with lower fat cheeses.
- Gradually substitute water or low-calorie beverages for higher calorie drinks.
All in the Family
Helping your child lose weight should be a family project. You can’t expect one child to change her eating habits on her own while others in the household are showing no self-restraint and continuing to reach for candy and high-fat ice cream. Children are just too smart to accept a “Do as I say, not as I do” attitude from their parents and other family members. So your entire family needs to get on board. That means modeling healthy eating behaviors that you want your child to adopt, now and in the future. It means recruiting all the adults in your child’s life as well as your other children as active members of the support team who are setting a good example, day by day. Everyone should be adopting the same eating plan, or you’ll risk making your child feel singled out, isolated, and even resentful and increase the chances of failure. Now, what if you have one child in your family who is overweight, but your other children are not? How do you explain to a thin child that the entire family is adopting a new way of eating, even if she has no need to lose weight herself? Here is the approach that we recommend. Explain that the entire family is going to work at getting healthier and that the nutritional changes being made are for the well-being of the entire family, from the thinnest to the most overweight (“We’re going to have strawberries for dessert tonight instead of chocolate cake because it’s a lot healthier for all of us.”).
The Importance of the Family Meal
At the same time, turn mealtime into family time whenever possible. Try eating most of your meals together. Children learn more about good food choices and healthy nutrition when family members join one another for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Research also shows that kids eat more vegetables and fruits and consume fewer fried foods and sugary drinks when they eat with the entire family.
As you use the recommendations you find to change the way your child eats, she’ll find that this new nutritional approach becomes easier with time. Remember, you don’t need to count calories or fat grams, and you don’t need to panic if your child has a bad day or even a bad week. A little backsliding isn’t going to derail a good eating plan if she gets back on track as soon as possible. Remember that energy balance is the long-term goal.