If every holiday party you attend begins with a joke about packing on the pounds, you're not alone. We all know the struggle. For the month of December, we'll fight the urge to indulge our seasonal favorites. Sometimes we'll win. Most of the time, we'll lose.
And as we laugh it up, our little ones are listening and soaking up every word and every action. And some of them are putting on weight, too.
So what's a health-conscious parent to do? We turned to pediatric dietitian, Natalia Stasenko, to better understand the pitfalls kids face at Christmas time. Natalia doesn't single out sugar or high calories as the main culprits of holiday weight gain in children. Instead, she says the biggest food dangers are in the "form of disorganization in meals and snacks as well as feeling out of control around certain foods that are typically served during holidays."
She's talking about mindless snacking, second dinner, finishing off the rest of the pie or eating another piece of cake just because you can. If we, as adults, struggle to maintain control, imagine how hard it must be for our kids. With that in mind, Natalia shares these five practical tips for encouraging healthy holiday eating habits in kids:
1. Set clear expectations.
Start the season right with a quick family conversation. Natalia calls these ground rules, where you define what meals and snacks will look like over the next few weeks. Keep in mind that this is not only for putting restrictions in place but also for saying, up front, what food freedoms you'll allow.
Natalia suggests saying something like, "We will have three meals and two snacks at the usual times, and we will eat or drink nothing but water in between. But, once a day, at a snack time, you can eat as many of your favorite cookies from grandma as you want. At other meals, we'll eat just one small serving of dessert, as usual."
2. Focus on feeding strategies and physical activity.
Once expectations are set, you don't need to say anything else. No really! Not even a chipper "Make healthy choices today kids!" or a raised eyebrow followed by "Are you still hungry or are you just eating?" Words aren't necessary or helpful. In fact, Natalia says, reminders like these create an even stronger emotional link with food.
Work to worry less about what your kids are eating and more about what you're serving. For help, Natalia suggests checking out her online feeding strategy courses offered on her site, Feeding Bytes, or reading "How to Get Your Kid to Eat: But Not Too Muchby Ellyn Satter
Then, you can also encourage physical activity by going for a walk and inviting your kids along. An invitation like this one passes no judgment and also has the added benefit of quality time with mom or dad.
3. Plan for success.
You may not be able to control dinner at the grandparents' house or lunch at the school Christmas party, but you can plan around those celebrations.
"Stock your fridge with easy-to-grab options like cut cheese, washed fruit, veggie sticks and dips, and hot soups for snacks or light meals," Natalia suggests. "And serve a variety. Believe me, after the sugar avalanche, your kids will be craving some savory, comforting foods."
Planning ahead allows you to bring balance to the mix, so your kids not only get the full range of nutrition but are also able to experience a full range of flavors. Despite what Buddy the Elf thinks, the four main food groups are not candy, candy canes, candy corn and syrup.
4. Address others' comments head on.
One of the best parts of the holiday season is that it brings family together. We meet up with aunts, uncles, cousins and distant relatives we haven't seen in months or maybe all year. But with this reunion comes a lot of welcome and not-so-welcome comments.
Statements about your kids' eating habits or weight are probably innocent. Still, you should prepare a few responses beforehand because, says Natalia, negative comments can be both "truly damaging to your child's feeling of self worth and embarrassing for you to address."
Preparation also helps you to remain civil and ensure your words are productive. For example, if a relative or family friend mentions how much your son eats or notices aloud your daughter's chubby legs and cheeks, you might be inclined to fib. You're better off to acknowledge your kid's healthy growth and appreciation for good food.
Then, steer the talk toward other non body-related topics, like your son's academic skills and hearty laugh and your daughter's favorite hobby and strong athletic abilities. This lets your child—and the offender—know that worth isn't found in looks, but in character, effort, and substance.
5. Create traditions that aren't centered around food.
Most of us associate the Christmas season with two things: presents and food. Food in particular plays a "disproportionately big role in creating and maintaining the festive spirit," says Natalia. "Show your child how to enjoy the season in many ways, beyond baking or eating cookies—build a snowman, go skating or skiing, read books under the Christmas tree, make a family video, cook a special holiday breakfast, play board games, have a movie night."
And remember, a healthy lifestyle all year long is more effective than a holiday boot camp.
"The work than can prevent [overeating during Christmas] has to be done during the year, in a calmer and more predictable environment. No amount of pressure you put on yourself or your child in this season will improve the situation," says Natalia.
So do what you can to promote smart eating over the holidays. Then relax, enjoy time with your family and commit to making improvements in the new year.