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It’s time to teach your kids about healthy eating

Back-to-school time is a great opportunity for parents to educate their children about a balanced diet, says Phil Lempert.

It’s back-to-school time again, and many families are preparing their children with supplies, new school clothes and, in some cases, tutoring to ensure a successful new academic year.

But one of the most important tools to provide our kids is how to eat right. After all, the figures show that obesity levels in school-age children are the highest ever and that healthy eating habits can contribute to higher rates of success in school-age kids.

The “obesity epidemic” has influenced both the food industry and consumers to make changes in hopes to encourage a healthier lifestyle. Bills are being introduced to remove vending machines from schools and to improve the nutritional balance of school lunch programs.

But how much responsibility are you taking to ensure healthy eating habits for your entire family? According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the percentage of children aged 6 to 19 who are overweight more than doubled between the late 1970s to 2000; rising from about 5 percent to more than 15 percent.

A recent survey from ACNielsen’s Homescan Panel indicated that the average person feels that he or she is most responsible for ensuring a healthy diet for him or herself. What about the next generation? Shouldn’t you take responsibility for the health, weight and wellbeing of your child?

Let’s start with the basics:

  • Are you providing your child with three well-balanced meals per day at regular times?
  • Are you aware of what they are eating and how much when they are at school? As a result of both parents leading busy lives, many may admit that they have no idea what their children are eating while at school. For some parents, their children consume two out of three meals per day at school. And the responsibility falls to our kids, by default.

Some schools teach nutrition education, however it is the parents’ role to lead their children in the right direction with healthy eating decisions. Here are some suggestions:

  1. Make meals fun and exciting. Kids will want to stay at the dinner table longer and enjoy their mealtime.
  2. Bring your child(ren) grocery shopping with you. Pick and choose foods to go in the lunch box together.
  3. Prepare for your weekly meals in advance. Don’t buy food at the last minute. You may end up just buying whatever is available, instead of stopping to think of what foods are healthful.
  4. Be patient with your child’s eating habits. Kids can be picky. They may not want to try five new foods at once. However, they may be more willing to try one new food per week.
  5. Make sure your child is taking a multiple vitamin. If you are not sure if he or she is getting all of the nutrients needed, a multiple vitamin is very beneficial for children. No other vitamin or mineral supplements are necessary, unless your doctor or registered dietitian has recommended additional supplementation.
  6. Network with the moms in the neighborhood on their meal selections. Find out what they are feeding their children. You may grab some great ideas.
  7. Keep track of new products available at your local supermarket. Numerous manufacturers are developing healthier products. Keep your eyes open. There may be a product that both you and your children will enjoy!

One of the most effective ways of encouraging nutritious eating in children is for the whole family to make adjustments in their eating habits and the kinds of foods that fill the refrigerator and cabinets. Three of the most significant remedies are easier to do than you may think:

  • Trade junk foods for fruits and vegetables. Family members are more likely to eat healthier foods if healthier foods are in the house. If you want to keep your family from eating high-sugar and high-fat foods, stock your refrigerator with a greater variety of fruits and vegetables. Make them ready-to-eat, and your family is more likely to snack on them. For example, be sure to always stock the fridge with grapes and berries, dried fruit, cherry tomatoes, baby carrots and sliced red peppers… snacks that are ready-to-crunch, delicious and healthy.
  • Reduce added sugars. According to USDA, Americans consume an average of 31 teaspoons of added sugars daily.  Read those labels carefully and look at the TOTAL carbs – not just “net” or “effective” carb claims. See how much “sugars” are listed. Remember that the “s” on sugars encompasses high fructose corn syrup, honey, corn syrup as well as sugar itself. A portion of the added sugars Americans consume is through sweet drinks, such as soft drinks, fruit drinks and punch. A 20-ounce serving of many of these drinks contains as much as 15 teaspoons of sugar. A quick and easy way to reduce your family's consumption of added sugars is to buy great tasting alternatives such as fruit juices, low-sugar beverages, water, and sugar-free drinks.
  • Set up a “food diary”. Research shows that writing down what you eat on a daily basis can actually reduce total consumption by about 15 percent. Sign up for our free on-line “fat diary” and track your meals, snacks, exercise and even stress levels – you’ll be surprised just how easy and how much fun it can be for the whole family. Go to www.philsfatdiaries.com

Healthy eating is for the whole family; “back-to-school” is a great opportunity for a healthy makeover.

Coming next week: We take a look at some of the newest and tastiest foods designed just for kids’ school lunch boxes as well as kid-friendly recipes to make at home.

Phil Lempert is food editor of the “Today” show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent to