“It is a time of accelerated weight gain,’’ says Thomas Robinson, MD, MPH, professor of pediatrics at the Stanford School of Medicine and director of the Center for Healthy Weight at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital. “It’s a risky period for kids in general, and in particular for kids who are overweight to start with.”
With the number of obese children in America at three to four times 1980 levels, Robinson said one of the best places to begin combatting weight gain is in the home. A good time to start changing habits is around the holidays. “That’s when kids are spending extra time in the home, and both eating and sitting around can get out of control,” Robinson said.
Here are some simple measures recommended by Robinson:
Keep unhealthy foods out of the house
“Don’t bring home high-risk foods – foods you know aren’t good for you but that are most difficult for you and your children to resist,” Robinson said. “If you keep them out of the home you won’t be tempted to eat them. If they sneak into the house, make sure they are stored out of sight and not on the counter. If they are going to be left out and about, keep them in opaque containers with a lid. You want to keep unhealthy foods out of direct vision and direct access.”
Make healthy foods readily available
“Cutting up fresh fruits and vegetables and having them readily available and easy to eat – either on the counter or in the refrigerator – really does work,” Robinson said. Another effective strategy is to fill up on vegetables, salads or fruit at the beginning of a meal. “For dessert, serve a selection of sliced fresh fruits alongside the pumpkin and apple pies.”
Create new family traditions … and watch that holiday screen time
“Families often spend too much time focusing on food during holiday celebrations and the days after,” said Robinson, who instead urges parents to come up with new annual traditions to share with their kids, like holiday hikes, playing soccer or taking a family bike ride.
“New traditions can also help families plan activities to keep children from overdoing their screen time,” said Robinson, who suggests keeping screen time to no more than seven hours per week – or one hour per day outside of school assignments. This can be particularly important during the holidays when kids are out of school and at risk of spending hours and hours watching television or playing on computers, video games and phones.
Robinson reminds us that in the 1960s when then-President Kennedy’s family members were photographed playing touch football games on the lawn on Thanksgiving, it became a tradition many American families adopted, but one that has mostly gone away. “We need to bring back active traditions like this. Touch football, basketball and soccer are easy to organize and fun,” said Robinson, “and a family tradition to look forward to even more than the practice of overeating until you are uncomfortable.”
Finally, if you are in the house, stay out of the kitchen
The kitchen has become a focal point of many homes, which has resulted in regular grazing of food and, not surprisingly, increasing waistlines. Engaging in activities in a room that is out of sight of the kitchen will lead to less snacking. “If they want indoor activities, families can play board games, card games and puzzles together,” Robinson said.
“People often look for secrets or magic clues about why a particular child has a weight problem,” said Robinson, “but, in general, it’s pretty simple. It’s the obvious stuff, like eating too many unhealthy foods, that is the problem.”
Robinson emphasized that nobody wants or needs to cancel Christmas, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah or any other holiday celebration that can involve a lot of food.
“If you want to splurge for one holiday night, then fine, go ahead. It won’t be the end of the world,’’ Robinson said. “But don’t do it again the next day or throughout the holiday season. Planning ahead and moderating our behaviors during the holidays can lead to healthier behaviors all year long.”
About Packard Children’s Hospital
Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford is an internationally recognized 311-bed hospital and leading regional medical network providing a full complement of services for the health of children and expectant mothers. Together, our world-class Stanford Medicine doctors, nurses and staff deliver innovative, nurturing care and extraordinary outcomes in every pediatric and obstetric specialty. Packard Children’s is annually ranked as one of the nation’s finest by U.S. News & World Report and the only Northern California children’s hospital with specialty programs ranked in the U.S. News Top 10. Learn more about our full range of preeminent programs at lpch.org and the Packard Children’s Health Alliance at PCHA.org.