Posted , updated Oct 01, 2003.
At the end of a long Saturday spent doing chores and running errands, it's tempting to do the quick and easy thing and patronize a fast-food restaurant on the way home from the mall. Fast food isn't necessarily bad food if you make good choices at the counter, said Karen Chapman-Novakofski, a professor of nutrition and a registered dietitian at the University of Illinois.
Choose the grilled or broiled sandwiches over the fried ones, substitute a salad or baked potato for the fries, and choose diet soda, low-fat milk, or water to drink, and you can feel good about taking the easy way out, she says.
Chapman-Novakofski knows that fast-food habits are hard to break, so she suggests making little changes that are gradual. Maybe you can't resist French fries, but you can buy a smaller size or share an order.
Although childhood obesity is approaching epidemic proportions, athletic kids or kids who are going through growth spurts can eat a lot of food without gaining weight. If calories are not the issue, she advises parents to think in terms of lowering fat and making sure the diet is a little more balanced.
"If your teenager wants the biggest cheeseburger on the menu, pair it with a salad and ask him to eat the salad first. He may not get to the end of the monster cheeseburger." These small changes are the key to changing bad nutrition habits, she said.
Children tend to be more active at certain times of the year, but they maintain those eating habits during months when they're more sedentary. Chapman-Novakofski said that modeling good eating and exercise habits for your children is more effective than trying to shame overweight children into cutting back on potato chips.
"Exercise can be as simple as dancing in the living room before dinner. It doesn't mean you have to invest in a whole new fitness wardrobe and put yourself on exhibition. Any kind of movement and activity will help," she said.
The nutritionist cautioned parents not to demonize certain foods, which may only make your children long for them. "I wouldn't suggest never having a cookie in the house. What you don't want to do is eat a whole package of cookies in one night," she said.
A ravenous after-school appetite is often satisfied by the first thing that's available when children come home. "If I leave a bowl of little candy bars out on the counter, they'll eat those. If I leave a bowl of red grapes or strawberries, they'll eat the fruit. You have to experiment with what your kids will eat," the nutritionist said.
Another way to influence children toward healthier foods is to let them cook. Chapman-Novakofski says this works especially well with 10- to 15-year-olds. "It's going to be messy, and it may not turn out right, but it does get them invested in the meal. And you can put your two cents in about adding a vegetable here or a fruit there in order to make the meal balanced. Planning meals and cooking are life skills that you want your children to learn anyway," she said.
A teenager's eating habits are pretty well established, and it's unlikely that teens will be as susceptible to your influence. Whatever you have taught them about nutrition may go out the window at this stage along with everything else as they try on new ideas and identities, she said.
"But teenagers care about how they look and how they feel, and if a teenage girl thinks eating a balanced diet may help her appearance, you might be able to influence her that way," she said.
"If a child is active in sports, stress that good nutrition will make her more competitive. Or, if your teens are working hard to get good grades, emphasize that good eating habits will help them have clear, alert minds. The one thing that I've noticed will make a difference is a boyfriend or girlfriend with healthier eating habits," she laughed.
"People eat for different reasons, and hunger is only one of them. They may feel tired, and think a cookie will be a pick-me-up, when what they really need is to go to sleep. Kids may also eat because they're bored or because they need comfort," she said.
"Usually comfort is just between the teenager and the bowl of ice cream. But it may mean meeting a friend for a pizza--even though the kid's already eaten--because she needs to talk about what her boyfriend said on the phone just now. Food is a cementing sort of activity for friendships."
"We make food the centerpiece of social events, when it should be just a part of them. We all remember birthday parties when our children were small and we scooped plate after uneaten plate of cake into the trash can because they didn't have time to eat. They wanted to get back to skating or playing games."
"An adult celebration is often centered around a buffet table with conversation afterward. We need to carry our kids' philosophy on through life and make food just one small part of the celebration," she said.
Source: Karen Chapman-Novakofski, Ph.D., University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Contact: Phyllis Picklesimer, p- firstname.lastname@example.org
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