Fit kids -- a care and feeding manual

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

We've all heard the statistics. Fifteen percent of American children are overweight. We know that being obese puts a child at a much greater risk of developing diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, asthma and high cholesterol. We know that an obese child is very likely to become an obese adult with serious long-term health problems.

And we know we don't want this for our children.

But we don't always know what we should be doing to prevent our kids from becoming one of the statistics. The good news is that it's not as complicated as it seems. The experts tell us that kids should get at least an hour of physical activity each day and eat a diet of low-fat meats and dairy, high fiber carbs and at least five servings of fruits and vegetables.

We said it wasn't complicated -- we didn't say it was easy.

But don't panic! We've talked to experts to compile some easy-to-follow tips that can help any family get healthier and more physically fit.

Move it!

Hearing that kids should get an hour of physical activity each day can sound overwhelming to many parents. The idea of adding one more thing to an already busy schedule may seem impossible, but it's a lot easier than you might think.

  • Schedule active time: Heather Glick, recreational therapist at the Center for Healthy Weight and Nutrition at Nationwide Children's Hospital, advises parents to schedule recess time at home. "Even 15 minutes of active play time will help," she said. Make it a habit to play basketball in the driveway when the kids get home from school or have a family game of tag after dinner. Whatever activity you choose, make it a part of your family's routine.
  • Rethink your family routine and make it more active: Adding movement to your child's day can actually be easy once you get the hang of it. Melissa Hindman, recreation leader at Worthington Community Center, suggested some fun ways to make everyday tasks more physically active. "Make picking up toys a race for your kids, bike or walk places that you would normally drive, have family outings to the park instead of the movie theater, or use fun activities as a reward instead of candy or stickers."

    Glick recommended adding active rules to the board games your family plays, doing jumping jacks during TV commercial breaks, or even simply walking around while talking on the phone instead of sitting. "Find whatever it is that you and your kids like to do and ask yourself, 'How can we make this more active?'"

  • Get creative: Girls -- and boys -- just wanna have fun, so make exercise exciting. Play active games, stock up on simple toys like hula hoops and balls, create obstacle courses in the backyard, or plan themed activities. Hindman said she often takes a basic game and changes it to fit a theme for one of the classes she teaches. "Right now Zhu Zhu pets are hot, so I took a simple tag game and re-named it Zhu Zhu tag. The kids loved it." Glick said it can be helpful to make lists of fun activities so that no one can ever say, "We don't know what to do, Mom." Many websites have ideas for active games - do a little research and introduce your kids to something new. Keep it fun and interesting and your kids will look forward to being active.
  • Be an example: You already know this, but it bears repeating. If you want your kids to be active, you need to be active too. "The best way to get kids to be active is to participate with them. Children are less likely to exercise if parents don't set an example for them," Hindman said. Plus, most of us could use a little more physical activity in our lives anyway, right?

Eat smart!

Let's face it. It isn't always easy to eat healthy. Picky kids, rushed meal times and the convenience of fast food are just a few of the factors that can cause our diets to spiral out of control. Lori Mooney, dietitian at the Center for Healthy Weight and Nutrition at Nationwide Children's Hospital, knows it's hard out there for families. She recommended concentrating on the areas below to improve your child's eating habits.

  • Portion size matters: Food portions have exploded out of control over the last 20 years. You can no longer count on a prepackaged serving size to be a realistic and healthy portion for you or your kids. So how can you know if your kids are getting a reasonable portion? These guidelines can help:
    • Meat: A serving size is equal to the size of your child's palm.
    • Starches: One serving is the size of your child's fist.
    • Fruits and vegetables: One serving is about the size of a tennis ball.
  • Drink it up: You probably already know that kids shouldn't be drinking soda, but did you know that sports and energy drinks are just as bad? By eliminating sugary drinks, you'll cut out unnecessary calories and reduce cavities. Mooney tells parents to give their kids water, low-fat milk and one four-ounce serving of 100 percent juice each day. If your kids insist on soda or sports drinks, go for diet versions or Propel Fitness Water, which has a fraction of the sugar of Gatorade.
  • Five a day: Fruits and veggies are important and not just because they're good for you - they also keep you from overeating other foods. Your kids - and you - should be getting five servings of fruits and veggies every day. Don't want to count servings? Use Mooney's rule of thumb and fill half of your child's plate with produce. "Parents need to take charge of their kids' plates," she said. For example, instead of letting your child eat four slices of pizza at dinner, fill half the plate with apple slices and salad and watch how pizza consumption goes down.
  • Breakfast rules: It turns out that Mom was right when she said that breakfast was the most important meal of the day. "Breakfast kick-starts your metabolism," Mooney said. "Plus, studies show that kids do better in school and have more energy when they eat breakfast." The traditional meal of eggs, toast, milk and fruit is a great way to start the day, as is a bowl of cereal with low-fat milk. Don't have time to sit down in the morning? Mooney tells her patients to combine a protein and a carb for a quick and healthy breakfast on the go. Some good kid-friendly examples include string cheese and a granola bar, apple and peanut butter, yogurt and fruit, or toast and peanut butter.
  • Snack smart: A recent study in Health Affairs Journal found that snacks make up 27 percent of kids' caloric intake and that many kids are snacking three times a day on chips, candy and cookies. Snacks are not inherently bad - kids need nourishment between meals. Just be sure that your kids are snacking on healthy foods. Mooney said the same guidelines apply as at breakfast time: a protein and a carb make for an ideal snack. Dried fruit and nuts, fruit and yogurt smoothies, and fresh fruit and cheese make for easy and nutritious snacks. Or go to and check out the snack swapper (a great resource).
Try adding some of these ideas to your routine. Even small changes can reap big rewards for the health of your family. And the habits you teach your children now will help them have a fit future.

Truda Shinker is a freelance writer and stay-at-home mom living in Powell with her husband and two children.

More help

Need some help getting active? Try your local rec center

Local recreational centers are great resources for families trying to add physical activity to their routines. Kids can get moving through sports classes, swimming and playgrounds, while parents can hit the exercise machines and take advantage of group fitness classes. Check out this list for locations and contact information.

Web resources


Keep your family fit

Red Light, Green Light, Eat Right

This guide to letting kids eat like kids by Joanna Dolgoff M.D. uses the power of play to get families excited about healthy eating. Foods are categorized as Green Light (go!), Yellow Light (slow!), and Red Light (uh oh!). Fruits and veggies are "free fuel" and indulgences like birthday cake are weekly "pit stops." Kids can mix and match traffic lights to create meals they love. Complete with meal plans and easy recipes, this guide is both kid- and mom-friendly. Available at for $21.99.

The Eat-Clean Diet

Tosca Reno changes the face of health, diet and fitness as she delivers her famous clean-eating (natural, good-for-you foods) revolution to the family. Worried about the declining health of young people and society as a whole, Reno formulated this easy-to-follow plan with her loved ones' health in mind. The Eat-Clean Diet addresses eating clean on a budget, teaching kids to enjoy foods they don't like, and even where to find clean fast food. Available on for $19.95.

She knows Jack

When her son Jack was born, Columbus resident Sarah Mahaffey immediately knew she wanted to make his food. Over the years she's enjoyed cooking simple dishes for her husband and often looked to the internet for inspiration. But when looking for baby food recipes online, Mahaffey was surprised to find such limited options. So she started her own baby food website - - full of recipe ideas to create simple and healthy meals. is for all parents who want make healthier mealtime options for their families.

Flex time

Mother and yoga practitioner Juliet Pegrum shows how children as young as 3 can build flexibility, strength, concentration, good posture and self-confidence through classic yoga poses in her book Yoga Fun for Toddlers, Children & You. Kids will delight in learning animal poses like cat and downward dog and object poses that mimic a teapot or boat. Available on for $12.99.

Dr. Susan's Kids-Only Weight Loss Guide

For the parents of children who are overweight, unhappy and want to look and feel healthier, Dr. Susan S. Bartell offers an action plan for success. In the Kids-Only Weight Loss Guide, Bartell sheds light on how the media and food industries lead children to overeat and how feelings can control eating as well. She also includes stories of support from other parents and easy-to-follow tips. Available on for $21.95.

Get going

They Might Be Giants, a Grammy award-winning alternative rock group, presents Kids Go!, a singalong book for children that combines upbeat lyrics with playful animations. They Might Be Giants are known for creating cerebral, humorous songs and this companion storybook provides both silliness and whimsy. An animated DVD comes with the book, making it easy for kids to get off the couch and groove to the music. Available on for $19.99.