woman in kitchen with child

Healthy Eating for Families

March is National Nutrition Month–a time to shed some light on our food choices and how we can develop some sound eating and physical activity habits. Health professionals seem to agree that American families desperately need both of them. In fact, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that nearly 21% of adolescents are considered obese, and over 17% of kids ages 6-11 are. This is a number that has continued to rise, despite the health problems that obesity can lead to.

“With so many processed and convenience foods available, so many families have lost sight of the connection between food and health. While many of these foods seem to fit in our busy schedule they may be setting us up for chronic diseases later on. Diet-related diseases like coronary artery disease often start in early childhood,” says Dr. Nimali Fernando, a Fredericksburg, Virginia-based pediatrician who founded The Doctor Yum Project, a nonprofit organization that advocates for better nutrition. “It’s important for families to make their health a priority through healthy eating and being physically active. Parents hold the key to making this happen, by being role models providing a culture of wellness in the home.”

One major problem that is plaguing kids today is the amount of added sugar that they are consuming. The CDC reports that Americans are consuming too much sugar, which can lead to health problems such as weight gain, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. They estimate that two- to nineteen-year-olds are consuming an average of 16% of their daily calories from “added sugars” (sugars and syrups that have been added to foods and beverages when they are prepared).

In addition to cutting back on the added sugar, there are numerous other ways that parents can help create healthy family habits, including:

Spend more time cooking at home, rather than dining out or grabbing fast food. Food prepared at restaurants is often loaded with added sugars, fats, and sodium. Parents can help teach healthy habits by getting kids in the kitchen to help prepare the meals. Using Doctor Yum’s free Meal Maker Machine on www.doctoryum.org, families can quickly create custom healthy recipes, using ingredients they already have on hand.

Offer kids a variety of healthy foods, so they taste many things and get the benefits of different nutrients. Take kids to the farmers market or produce department and every week let them pick out one thing they’d like to try. Keep in mind that multiple exposures to a new food can help kids enjoy a food they may not like at first (this is true for adults too!) Using Doctor Yum’s Meal Maker Machine is an easy way to use a new ingredient in different ways and prevent food waste.

Load up on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy sources of protein. Keeping a bowl filled with fresh fruit on the counter or a tray of veggies in the fridge is a great way to encourage kids snack better.

Start teaching kids at a young age about the importance of eating a healthy diet and being physically active. Give them the basics of how to read nutrition labels, so they can see for themselves how much sugar, for example, is in a food or beverage.

Get kids drinking healthy beverages. Avoid soda, fruit juices and sweetened tea. One cup of these drinks often contains their sugar allotment for an entire day. Instead, encourage kids to drink water, especially between meals.

Families can make an effort to be fit and physically active together. Plan walks, bike rides, hikes, sports and other activities that will get the family moving.

“When families focus on getting healthy together, it becomes fun and everyone benefits. When we teach kids to cook healthy food in our classes we always make sure that it’s fun,” adds Heidi DiEugenio, a director at the Doctor Yum Project. “We often see kids going home and teaching parents to enjoy good food. It’s about staying positive and taking that first step. With March being National Nutrition Month, it makes a great month for doing just that.”

Dr. Nimali Fernando and Heidi DiEugenio are two of the original founders of  The Doctor Yum Project, a nonprofit organization with the mission of transforming the lives of families and communities by providing an understanding of the connection between food and overall health, as well as empowering them with the tools to live a healthy life. The project offers free online tools to help families make healthier meals. They also offer a preschool nutrition curriculum, with 40 classrooms and almost 600 participating preschoolers. Fernando, otherwise known as Dr. Yum, is a board-certified pediatrician. She is also the co-author of the book “Raising a Healthy, Happy Eater: A Parent’s Handbook.” To learn more, visit www.doctoryum.org.

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