Rx for health: Play with kids, eat family meals, read books

November 10, 2004|by Lynn Little

American children are increasingly overweight, undernourished and at risk for serious health problems like diabetes and high blood pressure.

Obesity, Type 2 diabetes and joint pain have become everyday problems in pediatricians' offices. These serious issues are hard to treat at any age. Fortunately, they can be prevented with some changes in family eating and activity patterns.

Families need to develop healthier habits - to help both kids and their parents maintain a healthy weight. A few small changes can have a lifelong impact on everyone's weight and health.

Be active by playing together inside and outside. For a healthy weight, kids and adults need 30 to 60 minutes of daily physical activity. Play with your kids every day - fun for them and you.


· Play inside: Turn off the TV and play an old-fashioned game of hide-and-seek. Clear a space for wiggling, dancing and playing with soft-foam balls or squishy toys.

· Play outside: The options for outdoor play are unlimited: bikes, trikes, scooters, balls, kites, jump ropes, squirt guns, hula-hoops, hopscotch and tag.

· Play at the park: Most towns have fun park facilities, sometimes close enough to walk or ride a bike. When the weather is nice, take a picnic and play before dinner.

Make family meals a special time to eat together. Eating more meals together can make a big difference in your family's health, happiness and finances. Dinners at home are easier (and cheaper) than you think.

· Plan a weekly menu: Make it simple or make it detailed - the key is to have a plan. Involve the whole family; let each person have a night to pick their favorite dishes.

· Cook once, eat twice: Cut down on prep time. Cook and freeze key ingredients, such as ground beef for tacos and spaghetti sauce, or main dishes such as lasagna and casseroles.

· Keep the cupboard stocked: Pack your pantry (and freezer) with staples such as canned beans, tuna and fruit; pasta, rice and baking mixes; and frozen vegetables.

Save fast food for a once- or twice-a-week treat. Fast food is loaded with calories, fat and sugar. Whether you take out your meal or dine in, here are some smart tips to help you eat better in the fast food lane.

· Share a super size: There's a way to make mega portions work for you: share them. By sharing a large order of fries, you eat fewer calories and less fat and save money, too.

· Switch to power drinks: A 44-ounce soft drink has more than 450 calories and no nutrient value. Get power nutrients with low-fat milk or 100-percent orange juice.

· Choose nutrient-rich options: Many national chains now offer tasty, fun choices in kids' meals - like flavored milk instead of soda and mandarin oranges instead of fries.

Enjoy tasty fruit and veggie snacks together. Serve a rainbow of produce every day - at least five juicy, crunchy, crispy, tasty fruits and vegetables. Fresh, frozen, dried, canned and juice - they all count for five-a-day.

· Enjoy green fruits and veggies: For snacks or dinner, green comes in dozens of delicious flavors - like sliced kiwi fruit or broccoli trees with light ranch dip.

· Enjoy yellow-orange fruits and veggies: For morning, afternoon or evening snacks, choose a fresh orange, canned pineapple, or baby carrots and yellow pepper slices.

· Enjoy red fruits and veggies: Red is a tasty color for produce - any time of day. Try frozen berries, watermelon or canned tomato sauce on pasta, pizza or tacos.

Drink milk with meals and drink water with snacks. Dairy products can help kids (and adults) maintain a healthy weight, build strong bodies and lower blood pressure. Water is always refreshing - and calorie-free.

· Serve low-fat milk with meals: The best way to get your kids to drink milk is to drink milk yourself with every meal. Aim for a total of 16 to 24 ounces per day.

· Offer water at snack time: Everybody needs fluid to stay well hydrated, especially in warm weather. Water quenches your thirst - without adding extra calories or sugar.

· Steer clear of sugary drinks: For beautiful teeth and strong bodies, wise parents limit soft drinks, fruit punch, fruit drinks, sweet tea and other high-sugar drinks.

Take the TV out of the bedroom and read together. Pediatricians recommend no TV for children under three years, no more than two hours of total screen time a day for older kids and no TVs in children's rooms.

· Improve your child's fitness level: Turning off the TV gives kids more time for active play - plus they miss all those commercials for candy, chips and sugar cereals.

· Improve your child's school performance: Children who have less time screen time (TV, computers, and video games) tend to read more and do better in their classes.

· Improve your child's sleeping habits: There are many benefits to taking the TV out of a child's bedroom: calmer bedtime routines, more bedtime stories and better sleep.

These six simple steps to a healthy weight for kids are easy and realistic. They can help parents answer the question, "How can I help my child have a healthy weight?"

Lynn F. Little is a family and consumer sciences educator with Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County.

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