When you ask the ordinary question, "What did you eat for lunch today?" your child's answer is more important than you might think. According to the results of the Healthy Lunchbox Survey, many parents are not aware of what their children eat during the day, nor do they have a hand in preparing their school lunch. This lack of awareness can put your child's long-term health at risk. When kids are left to their own devices and with little supervision, they tend to make poor nutrition choices, which can lead to excessive weight gain and the physical problems that come with obesity.
To help you take back some control and help your child make better choices, Parent & Child turned to public health expert Rallie McAllister, MD, author of Healthy Lunchbox: The Working Mom's Guide to Keeping You and Your Kids Trim. Here, Dr. McAllister, a mother of three, tells us how paying just a little more attention to your child's lunchtime menu can be a great start to improving his — and your entire family's — overall diet.
Parent & Child: What was the purpose of conducting the Healthy Lunchbox Survey?
Dr. McAllister: First, we're very concerned about childhood obesity. Several years ago, 1 in 3 children had a weight problem. Despite the fact that we've been aware of this issue for a while, it's getting worse. One goal of the survey was to try to understand what parents can do to interrupt this trend.
P&C: How might this dramatic increase in obesity affect our children in adulthood?
Dr. McAllister: Simply put, it's a tragedy. Obesity is a debilitating disease. Children as young as 8 are being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, with high cholesterol, even high blood pressure. They're at risk for heart disease, something that would have seemed ludicrous to talk about a generation ago. It's very likely that children of this generation will have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.
P&C: What did the survey findings tell you about parents when it comes to their children's eating habits?
Dr. McAllister: We found that parents of overweight children are less aware of what their kids eat for lunch, and seem to know less about the health benefits of proper nutrition, than parents of non-overweight children. This proves that we still have a lot of work to do to educate parents. Involving parents in the challenge of solving obesity is critical. It really has to happen at home. As a parent, you have to pay attention to being a good role model, and realize how much power you have over what your child eats and what he likes to eat. You are the most influential person for your children in their early years.
P&C: Was there any goods news from the survey findings?
Dr. McAllister: Yes. We found that more than half of all parents surveyed were willing to make small changes to affect their children's weight.
P&C: What are some of these changes, which, as you say, are small but make a big difference?
Dr. McAllister: Try switching from white bread to whole grain bread for a sandwich. Most kids will hardly notice the difference, yet whole grain is so much healthier. If your kid balks at that, try using one slice of each kind of bread, and serve the sandwich with the white bread on top. Buy lower-fat peanut butter. Switch from mayonnaise to mustard on sandwiches. If you do nothing else but substitute mustard for mayo three times a week, your child can lose four pounds in a year. That's a lot for a young child.
P&C: Children often toss or trade away the parts of their lunch that they don't like. What can a parent do to make sure her child eats right during the day?
Dr. McAllister: It's always possible that your kid will wing his lunch into the trash. But you can reduce the chances of that happening. First, make sure he likes his lunchbox or lunch bag. Seriously! Kids don't want to be embarrassed by what they carry; they want to feel cool. Second, involve your child in what he eats for lunch. Give him choices — just make sure they're healthy. It's not a choice between potato chips and an apple, but between an apple and baby carrots, or between granola and Cheerios. Take your children shopping with you so they can pick out the type of deli meat they want. It's ultimately your child's decision to eat or not eat what you pack, but if you involve them from the start, and teach show them what good choices are, they'll get it.
P&C: Are there any strategies for encouraging a child to try a food that he says he hates?
Dr. McAllister: If a child says he absolutely hates something you serve, listen to him; he's probably telling the truth. If he absolutely refuses broccoli, for example, then ask him which vegetable he will eat. Maybe he'd like green beans. Or, he might even try broccoli in a different form, such as in a casserole or with a dipping sauce. Kids like different textures, colors, and shapes. Keep experimenting and try not to get into a rut. For instance, if you pack an apple every day, your child starts "hating" apples. Try pineapple chunks or slices of kiwi. You should try new foods with your kids, as well. Kids who are around people who eat a variety of foods are far more likely to do so themselves.
P&C: The holiday season and cold weather often lead to eating more food, more often. What can parents do to combat a family's winter weight gain?
Dr. McAllister: Don't hibernate! When you hunker down indoors, you start snacking while glued to the TV or computer. Weight gain happens because of overeating and inactivity. You have to keep busy. Get in the habit of going outside — rake leaves, kick the soccer ball around, walk the dog. You shouldn't deny your family holiday treats, but you can easily find healthier versions of your favorite recipes. When kids are home for school vacation, stock the house with nutritious snacks. Think trail mix instead of chips, bottled water instead of soda. Fill the fridge with the makings of healthy lunches. Make it easy for you and your family to stay healthy all winter.