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  • Writer's pictureJulia Brady

The Struggle to Establish Healthy Habits

A common topic I find among parents is how challenging it is to help children make good choices in this “age of abundance.” YouTube videos are the reality TV of the Centennial Generation (those now 22 and under). What the Kardashians started has been taken to a whole new level with 16-year-old JoJo Siwa kicking off the new year with a tour of her dream home financed by her YouTube earnings. While next week's post will discuss ways to create healthy relationships between kids and money, I will focus this post on the New Year’s chart topper for most adults, diet.

Perhaps more relatable than JoJo or the Kardashians, are birthday parties held at overpriced venues offering games and tickets that can be used for prizes and candy. I don’t think my 5th grader is unique in his obsession with these games. His last two birthdays have been at Dave ‘n Busters and his primary objective is accumulation. More tickets = more prizes. As a parent I must admit that parties hosted by Dave ‘n Busters are fun and turnkey, offering an endless flow of sodas and piles of French fries and chicken nuggets, a big win for the birthday child and guests.

My quest to raise boys with healthy attitudes towards food and possessions started out ok. I clearly remember when my 7th grader was a toddler and we would not let our au pair buy him ice cream at McDonalds when she gathered there with friends for playdates. We limited the amount of juice our son drank, never let him have soda, and desserts were an occasional after-dinner treat.

At some point this changed. Maybe it started when the boys could express their wants during road trips, and exhausted mom and dad would happily trade whining for a small soda. Then they started to influence grocery shopping, and before we knew it, anything food or drink related became a major battleground where we were often forced into retreat in exchange for a peaceful mealtime.

As I start the year with the resolve to cook more, I view this as an opportunity to again nudge my boys towards healthier food choices. As an information junkie, I scoured the internet looking for guidance on what good dietary options I should explore for my tween and teen. I have not been inspired by what I’ve found. The American Academy of Pediatrics’ reads like an encyclopedia, and clearly hasn’t internalized the trend towards lower-carb, vegetable-rich, high protein diets. I could have been reading an article from a mid-90’s issue of Runners World, stating that, “Complex carbs provide sustained energy; that's why you often see marathon runners and other athletes downing big bowls of pasta before competing.” Not super helpful.

A general lack of clear, consistent information about nutrition and kids is not a new issue. Law professors and epidemiologists from Harvard University recently published an article on the policy website The Hill with a headline proclaiming that, “Our diets are killing us and doctors aren’t trained to help.” The article went on to say that, “The average U.S. medical school devotes less than 1% of total lecture hours to nutrition.”

Well before my recent visits to “Dr. Google” (as my dad used to refer to the internet), I decided to create some rituals around meals and snacking that over time have created a few food behaviors for my boys that I am proud of. The first was banning devices at the table, especially during family dinners. We quickly realized that our young boys struggled to maintain composure during meals, particularly restaurants when staying in one’s seat was expected. So, while electronics were banned, books were not. Nor were crayons, colored pencils and puzzles. When books aren’t an option, we may turn to a game of hangman, or 20 questions when pencil and paper aren’t nearby. They get to choose the activity, and it may mean we’re part of it, and other times I’m the only one without reading materials at our table. While some people may think it rude that my 13 year-old barely looks up from his book while eating, we often get compliments by how nice it is to see an avid reader, often juxtaposed with a nearby toddler who appears to have his very own iPhone.

As the boys grew, so did their appetites. They would eat varying amounts at dinner, and right around bedtime complain of intense hunger. This was often a ploy for more dessert or some other similarly unhealthy snack. That’s when we came up with the concept of “anytime snacks.” This is a limited set of food choices that the boys can eat at any time and select at their discretion. This includes bananas, cheese sticks, and for my 5th grade foodie, caprese salad. The rule is they run the idea by mom or dad, find it (or make it), and clean it up. The timing of the request may drive the list of options. The 10pm cravings on a school night can be taken care of with a banana or cheese stick, no caprese salads nor Will’s “pretzel salami bites” creation.

We still have a long way to go. My 7th grader does not like the injustice of the “no free refills” policy at some restaurants and has yet to meet a carb he doesn’t like. My younger son loves to tinker in the kitchen and has started to draw the connection to food choices and how you look and feel. And I do my best to model a healthy relationship with food. And have even come to accept my lifetime love affair with chocolate.

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