Lately, the conversation around what children should and shouldn’t be eating has picked up momentum. Our country is still facing a daunting childhood obesity epidemic and it is quite clear that we, as parents, play a critical role in controlling it. However, the recent American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) policy statement on Snacks, Sweetened Beverages, Added Sugars, and Schools got me thinking that there’s something else that parents need to pay close attention to in order to successfully teach children healthy eating habits: we need to recognize that we are not the only ones responsible for feeding our children.
As a mother of three and a former owner of a Primrose school, I am aware of how easy it is for parents to overlook outside influences on their children’s eating habits. These influences – whether it’s school, child care, or anywhere else our children regularly eat and drink – all have a major impact. According to the AAPpolicy statement, more than 55 million children and teens attend public schools, where they regularly consume not only knowledge, but a significant portion of their daily caloric intake.
While the new AAP recommendations focus on ensuring foods sold at and brought into schools are nutrient-rich and better aligned with existing healthy nutrition guidelines, many of them are actually quite relevant outside of schools and for parents of young children who have not yet started school. Below are a few of the key nutritional takeaways to keep in mind for your children and family:
Don’t overlook snacks. A few decades ago, snacks made up only about 15 percent of children’s total caloric intake, so it’s understandable why our parents didn’t have to pay as much attention to the nutritional value (or lack thereof) of the snacks we ate as kids. Nowadays, however, snacks make up a significantly larger percentage of overall calories (in some instances nearly half), and therefore play a much larger role in shaping children’s overall nutritional status.
Find foods (and drinks) that pack a nutritional punch. According to the American Dietetic Association, as much as 40 percent of the daily energy consumed by children 2- to 18-years-old is in the form of “empty calories,” or calories that have little nutritional value. Just as schools are seeking to offer more nutrient-rich foods from the five main food groups, so should child care providers, parents, and anyone else who cares for young children.
Beware of the competition. Soda, candy and other “competitive foods” with minimal nutritional value all compete (often quite effectively) with children’s appetite for more balanced, nutritious fare. Just as schools, dietitians, pediatricians and the federal government are setting new standards to limit children’s easy access to competitive foods, so should parents. And when it comes to competition, nothing can compete with our parental commitment to keeping our kids happy and healthy!