Tips for Acting Boldly to Change Diet and Exercise for Kids

As parents and caregivers, you are critical to establishing the necessary and lifelong habits of healthy eating and exercise in children.

Act boldly as a
  • Role model — Make sure to eat healthy, wholesome foods and get plenty of exercise yourself. Be consistent; this should be a permanent part of your lifestyle. Set a good example.
  • Gatekeeper — You have the power to monitor and control what your kids eat, what exercise they get, and how much time they spend watching TV, surfing the web, or playing videogames. You’re in charge.
  • Taste-setter — You can influence your kids’ appreciation for the flavors of healthy food very early on, which can last them into adulthood. Start them off right.
  • Advocate — Use your voice to push for positive changes in child care, schools and your communities that facilitate healthy eating and exercise. They have the right to be healthy.
Change their diet
  • Use healthy, wholesome foods (i.e., fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and low-fat dairy) that are nutrient-dense when cooking family meals or preparing snacks. Limit consumption of empty calories in the form of sugary, processed, and fast foods.
  • Use Go, Slow, Whoa as a guide.

–    Go foods — low in fat, sugar and calories and nutrient-dense, e.g., fruits and vegetables. Great to eat anytime.

–    Slow foods — higher in fat, added sugar and calories, e.g., white bread, pancakes, fruit canned in syrup. Should be eaten less often.

–    Whoa foods — very high in fat, added sugar and calories while low in nutrients, e.g., candy, soda, French fries. Eat once in a while in small portions.

  • Make sure that calorie intake and portion sizes are matched to your child’s age and activity level.
  • Find ways to make over family favorites by using healthier ingredients (e.g., more veggies, less fat) or healthier methods of cooking (e.g., grilling or baking instead of frying).
  • Connect kids to their food by continually introducing them to new types of healthy food and allowing them to participate in food shopping and preparation so that they can understand what goes into their meals and maintain healthy cooking habits as they grow up.
  • Protect the time you eat with your kids — children who dine at regular family mealtimes get better nutrition, perform better in school and bond better with their families.
  • Change their media diet — limit TV time to one to two hours of quality programming per day, monitor internet use and make sure they avoid snacking during TV time.
Change their exercise routine
  • Make time to play or be active with your kids — set aside 60 minutes everyday to play catch; go for a walk, jog, bike ride or swim; or play tag.
  • Make sure your kids get enough activity to balance the calories that they take in.
    Give them gifts that encourage activity — e.g., sporting equipment, active games or enroll them in community sports teams.
  • Walk as much as possible — e.g., walk with your kids to school, after dinner, instead of watching TV.
  • Move around at home with your kids — e.g., yard work, gardening or work around the house.

Why are you critical to establishing healthy behaviors in your kids?

You are role models

  • Children are instinctively primed to imitate their parents and caregivers. They are incredibly sensitive to the messages that are sent about eating and exercise. You exert the most influence on your children’s behavior and can model healthy attitudes and habits toward food and physical activity that persist as they grow up.

You are gatekeepers

  • Parents and caregivers control the types of food children have access to in the home and can maximize access to healthy, wholesome foods (fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains and low-fat dairy).
  • You can also monitor children’s diet, exercise, and limit media consumption (TV/video watching, web surfing and videogames).

You are taste-setters

  • Parents and caregivers significantly influence the likes and dislikes that children attach to certain foods. These influences can last a lifetime. Each of us can probably remember a favorite home cooked meal from our childhood. There is even research that suggests that this begins in infancy; children who are breastfed may be exposed to different flavors in their mother’s breast milk than the sugars and fats in infant formula. Breastfeeding may provide protection from the development of obesity.
  • Eating with your children at regular family mealtimes can help establish positive nutrition habits and healthy weights for children.

You are advocates

  • Parents and caregivers can push local leaders to introduce affordable transportation (e.g., bus or shuttle lines) to supermarkets or grocery stores if there are none in their communities.
  • You can call for the construction of parks or playgrounds and restriction of fast food places in your neighborhood.
  • You can push school administrators to introduce after-school programs that incorporate physical activity or nutrition education, healthier school lunches, and policies that eliminate the use of vending machines on school grounds.
  • You along with members of your community can volunteer to coach afterschool sports.

The content above is reproduced with permission from “Tips for Acting Boldly to Change Diet and Exercise for Kids” ( Copyright © 2010 American Psychological Association.

Kids in Foster Care Deserve Special Consideration

For foster parents and kin caregivers, every day is a chance to teach children about nutrition and exercise. Yet we must be mindful of how we do this. For example, it’s a good idea to always:

  • Ask the child’s medical provider before altering a child’s diet or exercise, since you may not know all there is to know about their health.
  • Maintain a trauma lens. For example, say a child is overweight and depressed by the losses she’s experienced. Instead of asking her to exercise more or eat less, talk to her about the importance of matching activity and calorie intake—and be a good role model for her.
  • Focus on positive health and wellness messages (“spinach is great!”). Negative messages can have unintended consequences. For example, saying “fast food is bad for you” may feel to a child like criticism of their parents, if fast food is a staple in their family.

The bottom line? You should definitely teach children how to get and stay healthy. However, in doing so, it’s important to consider the child’s entire situation and all the challenges they face. Use the tips on this page, but with awareness and sensitivity.