Stuck at home in isolation, even the youngest Americans are at risk of packing on the “quarantine 15,” a pandemic weight gain that experts worry may have long term effects on children.
Nearly 20% of children in the United States are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which puts them at risk for developing diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, breathing problems such as asthma and other issues including anxiety, depression and low self-esteem.
Whether kids prefer it or not, schooling from home has eliminated beneficial health and wellness opportunities for children.
“Learning from home adds a less structured eating environment that could be detrimental to healthy food choices,” said registered dietician nutritionist Isabel Maples, national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
“To compensate, parents should maintain structured meal and snack times. Sure, there can be some flexibility, but there should not be grazing all day and everyone eating at different times, as it can get chaotic and lead to poorer food choices.”
♦ Decide what, where, when to eat
While school lunches may not be the tastiest, they are usually nutritious. Plus, they often offer kids foods they may not see at home, Maples said.
“At home as parents, we may overly cater to our children’s food choices or just offer the same foods over and over — most families do. Either can limit children’s exposure to a wide variety of foods,” she said.
If concerned about pandemic weight gain, a parent needs to take charge of what food and snacks are offered to children and where eating takes place, such as at the kitchen table or in front of the TV, Maples said.
“Kids should decide how much to eat. This division of responsibility sounds easy; it’s critical for raising competent eaters. Parents should feed well and let the child decide how much to eat or whether to eat at all,” she said.
Don’t restrict food or snacks, but it’s acceptable to make a child wait until the meal or snack time to eat, Maples said. Restricting food or only offering the lowest calorie foods may mean an overweight child will eat more than his body says to eat since he is afraid of being hungry later. Trust kids to eat the right amount for their body, she said.
Find a balance when it comes to tasty favorites. Limit excessive junk food in the house, but there is no need to totally ban less nutritious foods from the fridge or pantry.
“It’s OK to bake cookies together,” Maples said.
Make family meals a priority.
“Sit down together to enjoy meals and snacks,” she said. “Make it a rule that there are no screens, TVs, phones or toys during meals and snacks. Enjoy each other’s company. Talk about pleasant things. Kids benefit by knowing that there are predictable times that parents are available to them.”
♦ Make moving fun
Recess and many organized sports may have been cancelled, but parents can take advantage of kids’ natural love of movement. Maples suggests bundling up and going for a walk, playing outdoor games, planning an outdoor field trip that includes walking and other family activities that involve exercise.
“Don’t make ‘being active’ into a chore. Parents can get involved in a dance video, a game of kickball, a snowball fight, etc.,” she said. “Limit TV/screen time to force kids to find something else to do. Include kids in household chores like carrying laundry upstairs and downstairs.”
♦ Snack time
Snacks should supply one-quarter of a kid’s calories and fill in nutrition gaps, so make food choices count, Maples said.
Some smart kid-friendly snack options include:
♦ Sliced apples dipped in peanut or nut butter
♦ Raw veggies dipped in hummus
♦ Graham crackers or cookies and milk
♦ String cheese rolled into a corn or whole grain flour tortilla melted on the stove or in the microwave and dipped into salsa. Add fiber and protein by spreading refried beans over the tortilla.
Older kids need more calories. Try a mini-meal, leftovers or a sandwich, Maples said.
“Avoid allowing kids to graze, because it means kids are less hungry at mealtime, less interested in nutritious foods when they get to the dinner table, less well-behaved at mealtimes and less able to learn socially/emotionally at family meals,” she said. “Plus, having to clean up the kitchen constantly is too hard on the parents.”
♦ Do your best
Lastly, parents should cut themselves some slack.
“Parents and kids are juggling a lot, but there’s less pull from other commitments. Enjoy the time together. Cook together. Get kids more involved in chores including meal preparation and clean up that give them life skills. Healthy meals can include cans, frozen foods, packages. Don’t expect perfection,” Maples said.