The Holidays and Food:
What Heath-Minded Parents Should Do
By Dr Susan Bartell
You know the holidays are approaching as recipe books come out, turkeys start basting and colorful cookies begin piling up decoratively in boxes and tins. The holiday season is a wonderful time, but it can also be challenging for parents who have been working hard all year to ensure that their children are eating healthily. If you're one of these parents, you're right to be concerned. The season of celebration seems to get longer each year, beginning before Halloween and not ending until into January. That's nearly a quarter of the year.
Food in Your Lives
Celebrations around food are an important part of almost every culture and we shouldn't deprive our children of the unique and special traditions of food related festivities. However, with obesity rates continuing to soar, perhaps it's time to ask yourself "what can I do to keep the wonderful, celebratory aspects of food during the holidays, but let go of the parts that cause my kids (and myself) to eat too much?" Especially of the three "C's": cookies, candy and cake. In fact, even parents of slim children are rightly concerned around the holidays. No parent wants a child over-indulging on sugar, fats and artificial colors and flavors, but it's tough at this time of year. Overindulgence seems to be the name of the game. So what do you do?
Keep it Balanced
You can begin by setting limits by not feeling the need to say "yes," every time a child asks for one of the three C's or for a second (or third) helping. It's okay to say "no" once in a while, especially if your child has already had his or her share of sweets and treats for the day. There are may other indulgences that they will experience that don't go into their mouths, and the holiday doesn't have to be an excuse to allow them an "all you can eat" attitude.
However, it is important to recognize that the holiday season is different from other times of the year. That means you can't expect your kids to be perfectly healthy when it comes to holiday eating, no matter how hard you try. School parties, celebrations with friends, and family get-togethers will tempt even the healthiest eaters (adults and kids!) If you say "no" to your child every time he or she asks for a treat or wants a second helping of something delicious, you will probably find yourself saying "no" too often, and no one wants to be the bad guy all the time! What's more, your child may become frustrated and sneak forbidden food when your back is turned, gorge on junk food when you're not around, and then fib to you to avoid getting in trouble. Those actions can develop into long-term negative habits and behaviors, and no one wants that.
Your goal is to avoid setting up this kind of negative relationship with your child, and the way to do so is by saying "yes" sometimes. But, before you say yes, you need to do so, using the following eight simple strategies that will help keep your family healthy through the holidays:
1. Before each party or celebratory meal make a plan with your child. For example, you may agree to eat as much chicken and veggies as you want, one helping of pasta, one cup of soda and one cookie. It's fine to negotiate a slightly different plan with each of your children, giving each a feeling of control. Perhaps one child would prefer to trade the cup of soda for water or seltzer and have two cookies instead of soda altogether. This type of negotiation is particularly important for older children and teens who will not be happy about you telling them what to eat.
2. If you know you're going to a party with very few healthy choices, feed your child a large healthy snack or small meal right before the party. If your child is not starving he or she will be less likely to binge on junk food at the party and more open to your limits. For teens, especially those motivated to healthy eating, suggest a healthy meal before going to a party with friends (teen parties rarely offer healthy food choices), volunteer to help prepare it if your teen agrees.
3. At parties serve your child food, snacks and drinks on smaller plates, bowls and in glasses. Research has shown that both children and adults eat less food this way. Try it yourself! Educate preteens and teens about this research in advance of the holiday season and eat off small plates yourself, to model this.
4. At holiday meals help your child choose a balanced meal that includes protein and veggies, rather than only focusing on carbs. When children are left to pick their own meals (especially at a buffet), they rarely choose healthily. Ask teens if they want your help. Don't force your choices on them, but put healthy choices on your plate because your teen may glance stealthily at your plate for guidance!
5. Don't give in to nagging! Once you've said "no" to a second (or third!) helping or to a snack, stick to it, and make sure you mean it. That means setting limits carefully.
6. Volunteer to bring a relatively healthy, but fun, snack or dish that your kids love. This way you know they will have at least one healthy choice. Ideas will vary depending upon your child's taste, but a few examples are: veggies and low-fat ranch dressing (a kid favorite); oven-baked chicken nuggets; ice-pops or Italian ices; or home-baked low-fat oatmeal cookies. Many teens love to cook. If you're fortunate enough to have one who does, engage him or her in helping to prepare food for a party. A bonus: kids are more likely to eat food they've prepared.
7. During the holiday season, try to maintain healthy meals as often as possible at home in between the festivities, focusing on low-fat proteins like poultry, fish, eggs, non-meat proteins and low-fat dairy as well as all the fruit and veggies your child loves. This is a good time to opt against fast-food meals, even though the fast-paced craziness of the holiday season makes it so tempting. Instead of stopping for fast-food at the mall in between furious holiday shopping, pack a healthy lunch and snacks for your family, and bring it in a backpack or leave it in the car. Not only will your bodies thank you, but you'll save money too – at a time when you probably really need it!
8. Keep your family physically active even though you're busy. Yes! Walking around the mall does count as exercise as long as you take your kids along and don't leave them at home watching TV or sitting in the toy section while you run around. It's also important not to over-schedule yourselves with holiday activities. Leave time for family exercise. Not only is the exercise important, but families need down time during the holidays to be together, to think about healthy New Year resolutions and to be thankful for each other. And getting the whole family outside for some fresh air, sledding, skiing or just making a good trek is good for everyone.
Many families are facing the reality that they overeat no matter what time of year it is. Use these tips as you head into the holidays, and you may find yourself applying them throughout the year for healthier eating habits, and a healthy family.
Dr. Susan Bartell is a nationally recognized child, teen and parenting psychologist and award-winning author. Her latest book is Dr. Susan's Kids-Only Weight Loss Guide: The Parent's Action Plan for Success. You can learn more about Dr. Bartell at www.drsusanbartell.com