The increasing rates of childhood obesity in the United States has made weight and nutrition a huge concern for parents, and doctors and dietitians are working hard to figure out the best ways to help overweight or obese children reach a healthy weight while promoting healthy relationships with food.

As a registered dietitian, I believe finding your individual healthy weight starts with providing high-quality nutrition and setting up a healthy relationship with food. My philosophy on healthy eating for children may be different than what you may hear on TV or in the current media. While I do believe that fruits, veggies, lean proteins and whole grains should make up the majority of one’s diet to maintain a healthy weight, I also believe that variety is key. This could include eating various different colors of fruits and vegetables, as well as folding in fun foods into a child’s diet too. So, what exactly does this mean in the context of helping your child reach or maintain a healthy weight, and find a healthy relationship with food?

Model Good Food Behavior

Roasted vegetables

Set a good example. Photo credit Kaitlin Eckstein

It’s so important for parents to model good food behavior for their children. If you’re telling your child to finish their vegetables at dinner, then you should too! If mom and dad “don’t like veggies,” then there is little motivation children to try them. Watching parents eat fruits and veggies is especially important for young children. It’s also important to make sure you are also incorporating desserts, in moderation of course, and to promote realistic examples of a healthy body weight. I do encourage parents of the teens and adolescents I counsel to have desserts as a family to show them it can be normal. This might not mean every day, but maybe a few times a week. This helps to normalize the relationship with fun foods, making them less off limits. Over time, this will actually reduce cravings for fun foods.

Provide Healthy Options to Support a Healthy Weight

colorful bell peppers in grocery store

Try a new colorful vegetable

To support a healthy weight, it’s important that the meals you serve and the foods you buy at the grocery store are nutrient dense. Especially during the early teen years, your child will still rely on you to provide healthy options. To do this, here are some recommendations:

  1. Bulk up the fruits and veggies at the grocery store, even if they are frozen.
  2. When ordering take-out, search for the veggies! Maybe you can order a family sized salad for everyone to eat.
  3. Pack a fruit and veggie side dish at lunch–this can be as easy as carrots and dip or a small pack of canned fruit.
  4. Ask your child which fruit/veggie they prefer. (Ex: We can have either broccoli or zucchini tonight).

Introduce Variety for a Healthy Weight

dietitian-approved balanced plate of food

Try new sources for starch at meals

I think of variety in 2 different ways. The first is making sure to have a variety of food groups at each meal. The food groups are fruits, veggies, dairy, protein, grains and healthy fats. I recommend to aim for 4 food groups at meals (ex, veggie, protein, grain and fat.) and 2-3 groups for a snack (ex. protein and grain). Each food group has different macronutrients, vitamins and minerals that support one’s health and metabolism. The second way I think of variety is having different types of foods within the food groups. For fruits and veggies, it’s important to have a variety of colors, so having green, orange and red veggies as opposed to just green or just orange.

Desserts as a Family

cookies on a baking sheet

Make and enjoy dessert together as a family

Finding a balance with desserts can be really tricky, but it is important when you are trying to support a healthy weight for your child. Many people say they struggle with self control around deserts, so a parent’s first instinct may be to withhold desert. However, if deserts are restricted during childhood, this increases the risk of intense cravings and developing a habit of seeking out sweets. From my experience, the most successful strategy for balancing desserts is to actually include a small fun food each day. This can help improve your child’s relationship with fun foods and assures them that they don’t exist in a finite amount. These fun foods will stop becoming so “bad” and your child will most likely not feel guilty after eating them.

Avoid Conversations About Weight

activities for children

Make being active fun. Photo credit Allie Hosmer

I find that conversations about weight and weight loss can be anxiety ridden for children of all ages. Instead, focus on other ways to measure your child’s success when it comes to healthy eating and activity. For example, if your child never used to eat a veggie at dinner, and now he or she is doing that regularly… that’s huge! Or if your child wants to try-out for a sport at school, or if they show interest in helping you make their school lunch. You should celebrate that success with them.

Do Research on What is a Healthy Weight

books in a bookstore

Know what resources you have available to you

It’s important as a parent to know the evidence behind the doctor’s or dietitian’s recommendations. You definitely don’t have to know everything, of course, but taking time to read through some information about raising healthy and nutritious kids can be really helpful. I would recommend reading the American Academy of Pediatrics Guidelines on Preventing Obesity and Eating Disorders. Ellyn Satter is a rockstar dietitian who has wonderful information about feeding a family. A lot of her resources are directed toward parents who are feeding younger kids, however many of those concepts can be applied to people of all ages.

If you would like to visit one of our pediatric dietitians, please call 301-474-2499 or click here

Rebecca Bitzer loves to empower Registered Dietitian Nutritionists (RDNs) and their clients.  Co-author of Welcome to the Rebelution: Seven steps to the nutrition counseling practice of your dreams and  Taste the Sweet Rebellion: Rebel against dieting.