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The perfect diet for kids is no diet at all

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16th-Oct-2016       
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In 1980, 7 percent of America's 6- to 11-year-olds and just 5 percent of the country's 12- to 19-year-olds were obese. Today, the number of obese American children aged 6 to 19 stands at a whopping 18 percent, and a third of American children and teens are classified as overweight. These statistics are sobering, but not insurmountable. Atlanta-based registered dietician Kristen Smith offers several ways you can establish healthy habits for your family-and not one of them involves putting kids on a diet.
Be a health role model. Smith says it's imperative that parents set a good example for their children. "Many parents do not take into account the degree of impact they have on their child's eating habits and self-esteem," she says. Make positive habits feel like a team effort, rather than isolating unhealthy family members. Load up your own plate with leafy green vegetables, fresh fruits, seafood, nuts and whole grains, and watch your child naturally follow your lead.
Ditch the scales. Don't focus on a certain number of pounds your child should weigh. "The focus on a child's weight early in life can lead to detrimental self-image issues later in life," Smith says. It's not just teenage girls who struggle with confidence. New research shows that young children of both genders are developing body issues. Focus on positive changes like increased fitness levels and improved snacking habits, and the numbers on the scale will naturally fall in line.
Try the traffic light program. Do you need a creative, positive approach to nutrition? Smith loves the "traffic light program," which groups food into green, yellow and red categories. "Children are encouraged to eat foods in the green category as much as they want, eat foods in the yellow category in moderation, and eat foods in the red category only rarely," she explains. No food is ever off limits this way; some are just eaten more than others, which helps ward off the cravings traditional diets bring. Try grouping foods in your refrigerator and pantry this way-just make sure someone sneaky doesn't move his favorite calorie bomb into the green area!
Make it a family effort. Including your child in the family's healthy habits makes him feel a part of the solution, rather than having the changes imposed on him. Take your kid to the farmer's market or grocery store and let him suggest nutritious foods to add to your cart. Involving kids in preparing nutritious food is also beneficial.
Children love measuring ingredients, peeling vegetables and stirring mixtures, and they're more likely to eat a dish they've helped create.
Get creative. Fast food packaged with cartoon character toys are designed to appeal to young appetites, but it's time to jazz up the presentation of healthier options too, Smith says. She offers some fun snack ideas, such as a fish made of fruit and a flower made of vegetables, in her blog, 360 Family Nutrition.
Spend less time and money. Diets often fall by the wayside for the sake of convenience and money. A frozen pizza or a trip to the fast food drive-thru is easier and cheaper than nutrient-rich dinner, right? Wrong! Try buying in bulk and cooking large quantities for later use. "I love the idea of cooking up a large amount of a lean protein, like chicken, at the beginning of the week and incorporating that chicken into different meals throughout the week," says Smith.
Start moving. One problem with diets is that they place all the emphasis on food. But eating right is just one part of the health puzzle; being active is the other. Fit families take time out from technology and bond over physical activities.
The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests children should be limited to two hours of screen time each day. Riding bikes and walking the family pet are healthy ways to fill in leisure hours.
Rethink rewards. It's intuitive to reward your kid for good behavior, but Smith cautions against offering incentives when children eat well. Chowing down on nutritious food is simply part of living a healthy life, and feeling good should be reward enough. "Food should never be offered as an award," Smith says. Instead consider planning an active family day hiking the trails near your home or swimming at a local pool.
All parents want to raise healthy children, but getting it done can seem no easy task.
The key is to incorporate health into your whole family's lifestyle. "Family support is crucial to maintain healthy eating habits," Smith says. "Every family member needs to be involved." Use these tips not as isolated projects, but as the building blocks to steady habits, and you'll go a long way to ensuring physical and mental well-being for all members of your family.
Lauren Katulka

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