The Non-Diet Approach to Healthy Weight For Kids

How to set eating boundaries to help kids be their healthiest weight.

The first thing parents want to talk to me about is their concern for their kids weight. They want advice on setting food boundaries with their kids, without making their kids feel bad about their weight, putting them on a diet, or triggering an eating disorder.

I get it! I know as parents you want your kids to have the best opportunities and the brightest future. And while parents don’t want to talk about how their kids weight might affect those opportunities, so many of you are thinking it.

It’s OK to desire a healthy weight for your kids. Participating in activities without getting winded, having fewer sick days, and limiting periods of overeating are all good things. Teaching kids about healthy eating habits and a healthy attitude is as important as teaching them budgeting or other life skills.

We live in a world of excess and food is perhaps the biggest offender. As a society, we eat a LOT of food! It’s time we take a serious look at our food environment and our increasing portion sizes.

We don’t hesitate to set boundaries or rules around sleep habits, screen usage, or even taking a bath, so setting some eating expectations shouldn’t be off-limits. Eating too much food, not getting enough sleep, and playing on an Ipad all day doesn’t make anyone feel good. I have seen so many kids get more excited about living life when they achieve a healthy weight, than when their weight is literally ‘weighing them down’.

So, I’ve created this outline of the things I’ve seen help kids get to a weight that makes them feel good. These ideas have been shown to encourage healthier habits in kids and help them to lose excess weight, while helping kids feel nothing but unconditional love from you.

HEALTHY WEIGHT FOR KIDS PLAN

The Groundwork

Creating a food culture of moderation rather than excess starts in the home. As parents, you have to be willing to model your own healthy relationship with food. This means,

  • Food should not be used as your own punishment or reward.
  • You don’t embark on a temporary eating plan to achieve weight loss.
  • You have flexibility built into your eating style.
  • You are comfortable eating a variety of foods from every food group.
  • You disconnect the presence or lack of food from your appearance.
  • You eat when you are physically hungry rather than use food as a way to cope with boredom, fatigue, overwhelm, depression, or other emotions.

The Mindset

We’ve believed for decades things about food that may or may not be true. Just because someone told you to eat 8 meals per day, or skip breakfast, doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Start by challenging ideas and learning new ones in order to create new habits that have real impact.

1) Know your reasons

Some kids really do need to lose weight. Statistics make it clear that childhood obesity is on the rise. However, creating healthy habits with the purpose of weight loss is rarely effective. When the donuts and candy bars come out, weight loss 6 months down the road isn’t usually a good reason to not eat the candy bars. Kids prefer immediate feedback and rewards, but weight loss is never immediate.

What other reasons would your kids have to be their healthiest weight? Is their weight preventing them from living the life they want? Is the life they want one of eating Cheetos and playing Fortnite for 6 hours a day, or is it engaging with others and being productive?

2) It’s not about appearance

With the huge social movement to love our body more, you would think the mindset for tying eating behaviors with appearance was disappearing. I would argue that it’s stronger than ever. Folks who don’t understand body love still make it about appearance. They say:

  • Love your body at any size.
  • Accept your flaws.
  • Embrace your imperfections.

These new headlines are still focused on appearance. Healthy patterns for eating and a healthy weight isn’t about appearance. A healthy weight is going to look different for every kid. Your kids appearance is going to change a lot over the next 10 years, especially during puberty. What happens after they embrace a flaw, and it disappears? Let’s not make healthy eating and healthy weight about appearance.

Real self acceptance, and real body love teaches us to take care of our body. What you love is what you take care of. If you have a new, expensive video game console, are you taking care of it? If you get a designer sweater, would you take care of it? Your body is the most precious gift you have. How are you taking care of it?

3) It’s a family affair

There is not ONE person in the family that should be embracing these healthy habits. Everyone in the family, at all weights can benefit from eating healthier, and not overeating. There is never a reason to let one child have a second helping of ice cream (or you) and denying the child that has a weight problem. When the eating boundaries are equally implemented, every child feels equally loved.

Gone should be the days that parents and kids have a different diet or eating style. Parents do not need to engage in a restricted eating plan for the purpose of weight loss, while the kids eat everything in the house. Your eating plan should be a lifestyle. Your eating plan should create a family food culture of balanced health and wellness.

The Plan

OK! We’re ready to get to the nitty gritty! I like to have guidelines, parameters, or boundaries when it comes to eating. I also like having guidelines for driving, for staying within a budget, and for cooking. Eating guidelines do not restrict you or your kids. Eating guidelines does not mean you can’t be flexible or intuitively eat. Eating guidelines gives you a pattern for optimal eating.

1) Portion control

No food is off limits, but boundaries should be set around portion control.  For a guide on appropriate portions by age or calorie limits, check out the ultimate guide to portion control here.

The basic you should know is to eat a serving of each food group at every meal. We use our portion control plates which are great for a constant reminder at each meal.

portion control plates that get results.

2) Food should be eaten at the table, without distractions.

Whether it’s an official family meal, or one kid having a bowl of cereal, eating in bedrooms, on couches, in the car, or trying any multi-tasking will lead to overeating.

3) Limit or eliminate snacking

When did we start eating all day long? We’ve moved from structured meals to grazing all day in the last 50 years. It’s rare that kids can handle a few hours without eating anymore.

This one habit alone, eliminating snacking, helped me lose the extra weight I’ve been carrying around. It’s OK to say no to snacking. Our digestive system was never meant to receive food for 12 hours straight. It needs a rest. It needs a break. If your kids really do need 4 or 5 meals per day, be intentional and make them meals, not handfuls of crackers.

4) Shorten the eating window

We want our kids to get a good breakfast in, especially on school days, but ending the eating window a few hours before bedtime is an option for making your feeding window shorter. Eating during an 8-10 hour window is sufficient for getting as many calories as your kids need.

5) Be active after your last meal of the day

Getting into the habit of doing something active after your last meal of the day can help keep weight in healthy ranges. Most families like to walk the dog, walk around the block, ride bikes, or rollerblade. But if your neighborhood isn’t great for that, playing active games like Twister, Dance-Dance Revolution, or Wii sports works too. Just get moving.

6) Eat protein with your carbs

Combining protein and carbs at each meal prevents the body from storing glucose too quickly. This is not only good for satiety, but also delays fat storage. The best way to put this into practice is to include a balance of the food groups at each meal. Protein, fruit, veggies, and grains will give you the fiber, protein, and carbs your body needs.

Bonus Behaviors

While there are physical boundaries we can begin to create habits for, we can’t ignore the behavioral reasons kids eat too much. This is a delicate discussion, and I would encourage a visit with a therapist or professional if necessary. A good therapist can help your kids uncover some of the reasons they might be using food to cope with their emotions.

There are some things you can practice at home however.

1) Journal

Encouraging kids to keep a journal is therapeutic on many levels. Reducing stress, boosting mood, and understanding emotions are better on paper than in a bowl of ice cream.

2) Learn coping skills

When there is chaos, struggle, frustration, sadness, overwhelm, boredom, etc. it’s easy to turn to food. Food can be incredibly relaxing. It can help you forget about your problems for a moment. But when kids start using food to cope with their challenges, there never is a solution to their problems, and it’s incredibly hard to break the habits.

Replace eating with healthier coping behaviors.

  • Identify when you are coping with food by expressing the emotion. Talk or write about it. Acknowledge you know what is happening.
  • Practice meditation or slow breathing.
  • Practice stressful scenarios with new outcomes.
  • Learn what activities are more exciting that eating when you are bored.

3) Clean up the pantry

Parents… you don’t need to buy a box of cookies, ‘for the kids’. Some parents will argue with me that they don’t want to deprive the kids of treats. Here’s what I found. Your environment won’t let that happen! Your kids will never be deprived, even if you don’t spend one dime on junk food yourself. They get offered treats at school, at neighbors, grandma’s, little league, church, the bank, and everywhere in between. The treats are everywhere. There isn’t a need to also keep them in your pantry.

If you want to help your kids have a healthy weight, take a good look at your cupboards and discontinue buying the packaged foods that are so easy to overeat. These include:

  • Crackers
  • packaged cookies
  • ice cream
  • candy
  • sugar filled cereals
  • and anything else you buy on a regular basis that is not nourishing for your kids.

4) Minimize food as a reward

We love to give our kids treats to reward them. I love it too. But, when you really look at it, it’s sort of the lazy way to give your kids rewards. It doesn’t require a lot of effort to buy them a treat, and you get a lot of feedback in terms of excitement from the kids.

Instead, I challenge you to really think about what rewards your kids will truly value that doesn’t involve food. Is it a movie, time with a parent, a board game, a new pair of socks? There are so many options to replace food as a reward, and it will last so much longer in your kids memories!

5) Start portion prepping

You’ve heard of meal prepping, but portion prepping is not only easier to tackle than an entire meal, it makes more sense! When you have kids who are left on their own to eat after school, or teenagers who are just independent, having portions prepped in advance can minimize overdoing it. Some portion prep ideas include:

  • Veggies, washed and sliced with a small container of ranch.
  • Trail mix portioned into 1 ounce containers or snack bags.
  • Waffles pre-made and frozen.
  • Rice balls, made into 1/2 cup size balls.
  • Hard boiled eggs (boil them, they are already in perfect portions!)
  • Frozen smoothie packs.
  • Pre-made salad jars.
frozen smoothie packs from Super Healthy Kids
Frozen smoothie packs from Super Healthy Kids

These ideas are helpful for ALL families who want to be healthier, regardless of weight! But, if you or your kids feel that a healthier weight would make their life easier, than don’t hesitate to look at these habits and begin implementing them into your family culture.

Are you ready to make the change for you and your kids to achieve your healthiest weight? Are you ready to be the best version of yourselves? Are you ready for you and your kids to feel amazing and healthy, every single day! Then, let’s do this together!