Parents are bombarded with studies linking children’s lack of activity and overeating to obesity and diabetes. We are informed that our children do not exercise enough, that they sit in front of the television or computer too much, that they eat junk food.
We are then chastised for focusing on being thin. We are told our children see unrealistic models creating unreachable ideals from clothing stores and fashion magazines. We should not have scales in the house. We should not talk about dieting in front of our teens.
How am I to navigate this minefield? How do I raise healthy, independent, balanced eaters? How am I supposed to promote the right amount of exercise? Especially when some days I just want to sit in my house, curl up with a box of cookies, and knit?
When my two children were toddlers, managing their diet was easy. They munched on healthy snacks I packed when we went to the park. They ate adequate portions I provided for meals and then immediately jumped down to run around and play. They were constant balls of energy in motion, burning off any excess calories they ingested. Most of my energy was spent trying to make them sit still.
As my children have grown, very different issues have arisen. Amanda was diagnosed with celiac disease and type 1 diabetes. Jason has a limited palate and prejudges what he will like. What passes Jason’s sniff and taste test will be consumed, but there is not much variety.
At 15, Amanda isn’t as active as she used to be. She doesn’t run around outside for fun. She rarely plays on the swing set. She will ride her bike, but she only does a few laps around the block.
She does not participate in school sports, although she takes part in Special Olympics. She does gymnastics, plays soccer and cheerleads. These activities bring varying amounts of exercise, but not where she sustains a high level of exertion for a significant length of time.
Her preference when home is to be in her room listening to her music and acting out scenes from her various drama productions. Such activities don’t really raise her heart rate.
In contrast, Jason is a very active 10-year-old boy. He plays soccer, and climbs Adirondack peaks. He prefers running around outside to sitting in front of a computer or TV. He can’t sit in one place long enough to finish a meal.
Amanda is not aware of body image, weight issues or clothing sizes. I am not sure if this is due to her having Down syndrome, or if it just isn’t of interest to her. She is not getting any taller.
Jason, on the other hand, is curious about food’s fat content, his body mass index and his cholesterol levels. He’s in the 95th percentile for height. And he seems to be going through a constant growth spurt or growth surge. Whatever it is, he eats nonstop.
My children’s varied eating and exercise habits make me pull my hair out. It would be so easy if I could just throw a soccer ball outside and they would run around and play. It would be heaven if I could create a healthy dinner full of vegetables and spices and not get “the face” and the “Do I have to eat that?” It would be bliss if we all ate just the right portions and did not ask for more.
I haven’t even addressed the fact that I am an Italian mama and food is love to me. There is nothing that warms my heart more than seeing my children happily eating their dinner.
I want things to be fair.
How do I tell Amanda she cannot have a snack when she has just seen her brother have a bowl of cereal an hour after he ate a yogurt, an hour after he ate lunch?
How do I not get frustrated with Jason when, with one look at the food on the table, he turns his nose up?
How do I not compare him to Amanda, who will try almost anything once and likes just about everything she tries?
What do I tell Amanda when she asks for seconds at dinner after watching her brother have thirds?
I do not want to be the food Nazi. I do not want to be the exercise drill sergeant. I do not want to mention that there are starving children in wherever it is fashionable to say now.
With all this in mind I have tried to establish a few guidelines. I hope these start them on the way to adult eating habits they can pass on to their children.
I encourage independence with food choices. Their maturity should bring ability regarding responsible snacking. I provide healthy options: grapes, clementines, yogurt, string cheese. They know where they are. They are aware of the appropriate time for snacks. You may have one when you get home from school. You may not have one a half-hour before dinner.
When they’re thirsty, they know the better choices are water or milk, not multiple Capri Suns.
We have begun honoring portion sizes on food packages, doling out a serving of chips and then putting the bag back in the pantry and being careful when serving a portion of pasta or mashed potatoes.
We’ve started having family soccer games and mixed-doubles tennis matches.
We talk about if we are eating because we are hungry or if we are eating for something to do.
I have not eliminated junk food from the house. I am trying to teach that there is a time and amount that is OK.
With all this I try to maintain balance. Balance with exercise. Balance with food choices. And, I hope, an understanding that these are guidelines, not rules. Sometimes whiling the day away on the couch watching movies is called for. And sometimes an extra cookie is needed. Because, as we all know, cookies are the perfect comfort food.
Deborah Cavanagh lives in Manlius with her husband and two children. She has written for local organizations supporting children and adults with special needs and publishes the blog www.momofmanyneeds.com.
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