Children's Nutrition: Grow Super Kids! | Top 5 Tips for a Healthy Diet

Some folks in the health industry call kids the achilles heel of health and wellness. Or in other words, children are the most vulnerable and most easily malleable by outside influences to adopt health and wellness best practices.  And chances are, what they learn as children, usually stays with them for life.

In our country, obesity is a national crisis.  Over the past 30 years, physical activity has gone down and processed food consumption has gone up. It is estimated that a staggering 70% of Americans are obese, and over 40% of children are (Source: The biology of Food Addiction, Mark Hyman MD).

One of the largest reasons for this is because of how our country has been operating over the last 30 years.  Marion Nestle wrote a great book, Food Politics where she explains that back in the 80’s farmers received subsides from the government to produce more food. As a result, we were seeing mountains of corn in Iowa, wheat in Kansas, sugar cane in Georgia.  In addition, there was a deregulation of Wall street, and corporations had to grow their profit to stay competitive – this includes Pepsi, Campbells, Fritolay, Mcdonalds to name a few.  As a result, children became victims of more and more advertising for these unhealthy processed foods. Families began eating outside the home more often, and in larger quantities.  In addition, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the proliferation of electronic devices has the average child consuming over 7 ½ hours of all screen media (TV, videos, DVD’s, computer and video games). Because of all of these factors, our countries’ obesity rate has tripled since the 1980s. 

The good news is that in the 21st century, there have been powerful figures like Michelle Obama and Dr Oz advocating change on how we feed our kids and teach them healthy living habits. School lunch programs have radically changed for the better, which is extremely promising. We need to maintain this momentum and take back our health for our immediate children, and in our direct circle of influence.

Below are my top five tips you can do today to help the important children in your life be healthier, happier and more fulfilled.

Smaller Portions

As I mentioned above, portion sizes began to increase in the 1980s and have been growing ever since. Especially in America, we’ve been trained to go for the XXL iced tea or the Venti Frappaccino, because in America bigger is better, right? Wrong. Bigger portions are taxing our kid’s digestive systems, adding to their waistlines, fueling the dangerous sugar addiction, and making them more prone to higher blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes when they are older. When feeding your children, a good guideline for portion control is to think about the concept of Institute for Integrative Nutrition’s MyPlate, which is divided plate into four sections. Vegetables and whole grains fill the slightly larger sections, while fruits and proteins fill the other sections, and fresh filtered water and healthy fats/oils help supplement every meal. Be mindful that the foods in each section should not overlap or be piled high.  This will help you keep portions in check and serve more balanced and nutritious meals to your family.

Grow your Own Food

Growing your own garden can be a fun way to teach children about farming and where food comes from.  Plus, if they helped grow it, they are far more likely to try it when it hits the dinner table. No space for a garden at home?  No problem, window boxes can be just as effective.  I also love these guys - Green City Growers located in Somerville, MA (if you’re local in Massachusetts). They bring the garden to you, and convert unused residential space into flourishing gardens that produce seasonal fruits and veggies of your choice anywhere the sun shines.

Cook at Home and Eat Together

In today’s modern family, parents and kids have busy schedules, which as led to the decline of the “family dinner.” Eating dinner together every night helps the family to bond, facilitates the exchanging of ideas, and teaches valuable social skills.  We need to bring family dinners back in house, and cooking together is an easy way to ensure that.  Plus, children are more likely to become adventurous eaters if they know how to cook. I always urge my clients to “eat the rainbow.” How fun is that? Try to be creative with all of the vibrant colors in fruits and vegetables, so that your kids get all of the important phytonutrients their little bodies need. My minimum recommendation is to try cooking at home and making it fun at least 1-2 days a week. Whether it’s “Taco Tuesdays” or “Meatless Monday’s,”  make sure its fun and an idea kids can remember and look forward to every week.

Buy Local, Sustainable Food, and Cook for the Seasons

If you can’t grow your own veggies at home, try your best to buy local, sustainable produce. Buying local ensures you are eating foods indigenous to where you live, which is according to the Macrobiotic dietary theory is best for your health. And, chances are it’s more likely to be fresher, less expensive, and you are reducing our planet’s carbon footprint because the food did not have to travel far to reach you. Sustainable produce in the simplest terms is the production of food, fiber or other plant or animal products using farming techniques that protect the environment, public health, human communities and animal welfare (Source:  Organic produce, grass fed beef free from hormones, free range chickens, recyclable packaging… these are all healthy sustainable options that are supporting this cause. Lastly, my dad and brothers always urged me to cook for the seasons. And what I mean by that is really being mindful of what is growing and ripening at the time you are cooking it. In the Northeast, we look for peas and asparagus in the spring, fresh heirloom tomatoes and peaches in the summer, root vegetables and brussel sprouts in the fall. Being mindful of these seasonal peak produce will help you get the freshest and best produce available to you, while fueling your body with the nutrients you need at the right time of the year.

Boost Physical Activity

Exercise is crucial for kids. Kids who are active have stronger muscles and bones, leaner bodies with less body fat, less of a risk of developing type 2 diabetes, lower blood pressure, and a better outlook on life and overall wellbeing. In addition, they sleep better and are able to handle physical and emotional challenges more effectively if they are rested. Exercise also helps to strengthen their hearts, and help pump oxygenated blood to every cell in their body.   As a general guideline, try to urge your child to have 60 or more minutes of physical activity each day (i.e. running, walking, active games with other kids, sports).  Part of that 60 minutes a day, try to include muscle strengthening activities 3 days a week (i.e. pushups, crunches, gymnastics), and bone strengthening activities at least three days a week (i.e. running, jump roping).