Columnist: It's up to you to teach your children about nutrition

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According to American Council on Exercise studies, children and adolescents compared to those of previous generations, eat:

  • breakfast less often
  • away from home more often
  • a greater proportion of calories from snacks
  • more fried and nutrient-poor foods
  • greater portion sizes
  • fewer fruits and vegetables
  • excessive sodium
  • more sweetened beverages

I guess this isn’t surprising as childhood obesity continues to rise in our country. Unfortunately, this also means that unless we take responsibility for teaching our children about good nutrition they may be looking at a future of obesity related woes such as Type II diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers.

The American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Heart Association recommend families choose:

  • Whole foods and grains as opposed to refined sugars and processed foods.Whole foods typically have more fiber and nutrients, and less sugar.
  • A wide variety of colorful vegetables rather than just starchy ones such as corn and potatoes. When you shop, think about representing all of the colors of the rainbow in your produce. No need to revamp the way you shop and eat all at once; pick one new vegetable a week and have the family sample.
  • A variety of fruits from whole food sources, instead of fruit juices. The sugar in most juices usually outweighs the benefit from the fruit. Avoid all sodas, diet or otherwise.
  • Oils in moderation, avoiding trans and saturated fats, which are often added to processed foods. Some fats are healthier than others, such as the fat in fish and nuts. Choose fish and the leanest cuts of meat you can afford.

Maybe you already know that you need to help your kids eat more healthfully but don’t know how to approach making changes. Though schedules get hectic this time of year, it will be time well spent. Here are a few suggestions.

  • Dine together as a family regularly. Schedule it! Start small by choosing one night a week for a family meal.
  • Teach nutrition to your kids by involving them in shopping. Have them help you prepare meals or grow a garden — even just a single pot with a tomato plant or a few herbs on the windowsill. Yes, it will take longer to prepare a meal with little ones helping, so try this first on the weekend or when you know you won’t feel rushed.
  • Practice a division of responsibility. Parents choose what foods will be in the home, maybe with the help of the children. Children choose from the food available what and how much of it they will eat. Parents have control over the foods; kids feel a sense of control in choosing for themselves what to eat and also learn to use internal feelings of hunger and fullness in deciding how much to eat. This works especially well with snack times.
  • Be an example. Try new, healthful foods and recipes with an open mind. If you exist on fast food and packaged foods, your children will learn to do the same.
  • Be patient. Don’t give up. Just because your child doesn’t like a particular food now, doesn’t mean they still won’t in a year or two. And be patient with yourself.
  • Teaching our kids to eat well is a huge responsibility and can be a challenging one, especially if not-so-healthful habits are ingrained. It’s never too late to make a change for the better, set a good example and experiment.

Don’t make several changes at once or try a huge overhaul over a short period; you are setting yourself up for failure. Choose one small thing you are confident you can do, choose another in few weeks, and so on. These tiny steps add up to meaningful change over time, but you have to take the first step for the health of your family.

Elizabeth Sparks is an American Council on Exercise certified personal trainer and fitness nutrition specialist, and an eCornell certified plant-based nutritionist. Contact her through the Walla Walla YMCA at 509-525-8863.

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