Family-Sized Portions

Does your family have healthy eating habits?

By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

I've got a new twist on the familiar "you are what you eat" adage: You are what you're served. And these days, that would be "supersized."

In February, the Journal of the American Dietetic Association reported that typical marketplace portions exceed federal recommendations by as much as five times. But before we go blaming the restaurant industry, take a look at what you're serving at home. The Journal of the American Medical Association reported earlier this year that portion sizes for all categories of foods increased both at restaurants and at home.

No wonder more than one out of 10 American kids aged 6-11 are overweight. And those extra pounds translate into type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, depression, and a whole host of other chronic diseases that have primarily ailed adults. "The complications of childhood obesity are the risk factors that actually become the diseases of adulthood," William H. Dietz, MD, PhD, the director of the division of nutrition and physical activity at the CDC's National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion in Atlanta, tells WebMD.

Parents and caretakers, we can stem the tide of this growing obesity epidemic by creating healthy eating habits at home.

Serve Yourself

According to a report in the May issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, preschool kids who were allowed to dish out their own food ate much less than when it was portioned for them. The children ate 25% more when they were served larger portions and did not eat less of other foods at the same meal. The researchers argue that the amount of food on a plate gives children a visual cue as to how much they are expected to eat. Why not let your kids serve themselves at dinnertime? Just keep a watchful eye over little ones when it comes to dishing out sweets.

Eating more meals at home is another way to protect your children's waistline. Families that eat together regularly have healthier diets than families that don't sit down together as often, according to a report in the March 2000 issue of Archives of Family Medicine.

The study showed that families who eat frequent dinners together consume more fruits and vegetables and less fried food, saturated fats, and soda. These families also have a higher intake of calcium, iron, and vitamins -- all critical nutrients for growing children.

Other reports confirm that family dinners foster positive communication, good manners, and more well-adjusted children. Though it is easy to drive-thru and pick up meals on the way to the next activity, whenever possible, make a date to eat together.

"It's hard to imagine that our kids are
gaining weight from eating too
much broccoli."

Mealtime is a great opportunity for parents to serve as role models for children, and for everyone to enjoy one another's company while feasting on healthy meals.

Don't Forget Snack Time!

Children need lots of nutrients and calories to grow and develop, so make sure their diets contain plenty of vitamins and minerals along with adequate amounts of carbs, proteins, and fats. Snacking is an excellent way to make sure your kids get what they need and should be viewed as mini-meals. But don't let them snack too much, or they won't be hungry for dinner. Pre-portioned foods like yogurt and rice cakes are perfect snack ideas.

Fruits and vegetables are another great snack idea. After all, it's hard to imagine that our kids are gaining weight from eating too much broccoli. Your kids will eat more fruits and veggies if you cut them up into snack sizes and leave them out on the counter so they're accessible and easier to munch on. Don't forget to work them into meals, too. Check with Elaine Magee, our Recipe Doctor, for ideas on how to sneak fruits and vegetables into your meals.

Turn Off the Tube and Move

Food is not the lone culprit for the current obesity epidemic. Rather, it's a combination of too much food, especially the junk variety, and too little physical activity. Back in the '60s, we watched an hour or two of television each day. Today that number hovers in the 5-6 hour range and is a significant contributor to the couch-potato lifestyle of our nation. We need to kick kids off the couch, monitor their computer time, and help them find physical activities they have fun doing. Looking for some fun physical activities for the whole family? Check with our fitness guru, Rich Weil.

More Tips to Help Johnny Eat Better

These simple steps also will help develop healthy eating behaviors and protect your child from the battle of the bulge:

  • Use smaller plates when serving food.
  • Serve smaller portions for yourself and your child.
  • Stock the pantry and refrigerator with lots of nutritious snacks, such as light dairy products, fruits, veggies, smoothies, and low-fat crackers.
  • Eat together as a family as often as possible -- without distractions such as the television.
  • Get your kids involved in the kitchen. Teach them how to cook.
  • Take them with you to the grocery store and teach them how to read food labels.
  • If served a supersized portion when eating out, bring half home.
  • Limit screen time to a few hours per day.
  • Find physical activities to do together as a family.

The taste of eating right is a reward in itself, and when the pounds start disappearing, both you and your child will be happy with the results.

SOURCES: The Journal of the American Medical Association, Jan. 22/29, 2003. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, February 2003. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, May 2003. Archives of Family Medicine, March 2000. WebMD Medical News, "Super-Sized Kids a Growing Problem," July 27, 2001.

©1996-2005 WebMD Inc. All rights reserved.

Health Solutions From Our Sponsors