What Will It Take to Get America’s Kids to Eat Right?

By Jill Castle, MS, RD, LDN

As a parent-focused family blog, you can see that ‘what parents can do’ is on the top of my list. But, it doesn’t end there. Parents don’t operate in a vacuum – they have many partners when it comes to raising kids who are healthy. It will take a groundswell effort from all partners to make a lasting impact on getting kids to eat right.

Feeding Your Kids Healthy Meals and Setting a Good Example
May Be the Best Way to Teach Healthy Eating Habits

What parents can do:

Get educated
Parents get a lot of information about feeding their babies in the first year, but after that, nutrition information becomes a hodge-podge of confusing contradictions and changes, leading to fear and confusion. There is a lot to know. Registered dietitians who are trained in the science of food and nutrition are your trusted resource – find one near you to answer your questions.

Be committed to feeding your kids well
Plan, procure, and prepare good meals – this is your #1 job as a parent. Yes, feeding is a commitment, a job, and can lack reward sometimes, but I am here to tell you, getting this part right is so worth it. Healthy kids who enjoy food and who learn how to feed themselves well for life come with lasting rewards.

Enjoy food
Food is not ‘good’ nor ‘bad’– it just is. We all need to eat, and admittedly most of us need to pay attention to eating better – but we don’t have to be perfect, nor do our kids. Enjoy! Eating is one of life’s greatest pleasures.

Set the example
Behave the way you want your kids to – eat well and move. Parenthood is full of opportunities to show your kids a positive attitude about food, how to eat well and take care of your body through exercise. Your little monkeys will “ape” you all day long – make sure they see the good stuff.

Feed right
We are bombarded with messages that focus on eating right – I’m unsure if this is an effective message for kids. My advice to parents is this: Shift your efforts to “feeding right” and the “eating right” will follow.

What pediatricians can do:

Educate early
Anticipatory guidance is the buzz word for prevention. As pediatricians are the first filter for families, it’s critical that they lead the conversation about nutrition and provide referrals and resources promptly.

Intervene early
Give parents the resources they need the first time they ask. Screen for variations in growth and refer to other health care professionals (like a registered dietitian) who can address problematic behaviors quickly before they get out of control. Give parents the tools (and confidence) to overcome nutrition challenges.

Focus more on the health benefits of good nutrition
Traditional medicine is reactive. Build more health and nutrition education into your practice and it will help parents prioritize nutrition appropriately.

What educators/schools can do:

Integrate nutrition in the curriculum
It’s true: nutrition can be incorporated into everyday school subjects. Really! And frankly, nutrition is more interesting to children when it is presented in this manner, rather than as a core subject. Think about cups and teaspoons in math class, reviewing the latest nutrition research in writing class and nutrition ethics in speech and debate courses. And what about bringing back Home Economics? While perhaps boring for the teen, school-age children are at a perfect developmental age for this!

Serve wholesome food
Get the cafeteria food right. ‘Nuf said.

Elevate physical activity to a required part of the day
If you have read “Spark” by John Ratey, you understand the powerful impact exercise has on the brain, among other benefits. Our country focuses on activity as a means to correct our obesity problem, but the reality is that there are many other compelling reasons to bring exercise back into the school curriculum. For one, regular exercise may foster improved academic performance.

What food manufacturers and the media can do:

Stop selling empty health
Is it me or is the word “healthy” becoming an empty promise? Many people are lured to the cash register by the promise of this word on food packages. Over-used and under-performing, “healthy” is a term to ingest with a grain of salt.

Shift the target market
Leave the little ones alone. Parents have a hard enough time getting nutrition right, and enticing kids at every media interaction with food ads isn’t helping.

Change the conversation
The ‘all-or-nothing’ approach to nutrition and ‘good/bad’ food confuses parents and loads them with guilt for not getting it right. Guilt = failure = giving up. Parents who throw in the towel aren’t helping their kids to eat right. Cultivate messages that couple healthy behaviors with eating well, and we may get more kids to eat right and move more.
What do you think it will take to get America’s kids to eat right?

Jill Castle, MS, RD, LDN specializes in pediatric nutrition and medical nutrition therapy. She is the founder of Pediatric Nutrition of Green Hills, L.L.C. and creator of “Just The Right Byte,” a family nutrition blog. She writes as a child nutrition expert for numerous magazines, newspapers, websites and blogs.

The articles written by guest contributors are the sole responsibility of the individual writers in terms of factual accuracy and opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher of this blog.

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