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Dr. Birdie's 10 Top Tips for Teaching Kids Healthy Habits

By , SparkPeople Blogger
Childhood obesity is an epidemic.   According to the CDC, childhood obesity rates have more than tripled in the past 30 years.  Children are now dealing with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, sleep apnea, joint problems, fatty liver disease, gallstones, and heartburn--diseases that were once found mostly in adults.

Children who are overweight also face tremendous social and psychological problems, including  discrimination and low self-esteem, according to studies.  

And, in 2005, the New England Journal of Medicine announced that for the first time children are not expected to outlive their parents

One major obstacle in combating childhood obesity is denial.  Studies have provided the proof that when it comes to their children, parents are, in many cases, unable to see that there is a problem.  Parents are looking at their children with the belief that they are healthy, but sadly many are wrong. 

Despite the overwhelming evidence and our desire to help our children be healthy and happy, teaching our children healthy habits is not an easy task.   Parents are competing with peer pressure, mass media, and a decreasing emphasis on physical activity in schools. 

So, is there anything that you can do for your child?

Yes, of course. Today I'm going to share with you my top 10 tips, as a doctor and  a mother of five!

First start by calculating your child’s BMI and seeking the guidance of your child’s pediatrician.  Here are some tips intended for children ages 3 and up.  These are not meant as specific advice. Please consult your pediatrician for recommendations for your child. 

Tips for teaching your kids healthy habits:
  1. Lead by example.  You are your child’s best teacher.  If you are eating chips and drinking soda while sitting on the couch watching TV then they will learn to do the same.  If you tell your children that you hate vegetables, then there is a good chance they will as well.  It is important for you to show your children that living a healthy lifestyle is positive and not a chore. Show your children that you want and like to eat healthy and that you enjoy exercising on a regular basis.  Teach them consistency through your actions.  You wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t want the best for your child. Parents, we are in the spotlight! Our children are watching!
  1. Sleep.  Obese children get less sleep than normal-weight children, according to the research.  These children are spending this time watching TV, eating junk food, and playing on the computer.  These children may also be eating to stimulate themselves to stay awake.  You are the boss. Set a bed time and stick to it.  (More sleep also could make them smarter.)
  2. Limit liquid calories.  Calories in the form of liquids are huge contributors to childhood obesity.  We know that sugary carbonated drinks are not recommended for children.  This is non-negotiable.  Sugary sodas are high in calories and provide no nutritional benefit (and cause cavities!) (Drinking one 20-ounce soda daily can lead adults to gain a half pound a week!)  These liquid calories add excess calories without providing a feeling of satiety, meaning that they don’t feel full and can keep eating even though they have consumed calories that will wind up as stored fat on their developing bodies.  Seemingly innocent fruit juice is not so innocent.  It is concentrated calories stripped its fiber.  There are just too many calories in a small unsatisfying amount of liquid.  If you must offer beverages other than milk and water, consider other options: fruit-juice based sodas, low-calorie juices, or a 50-50 mix of water and juice.
  3. Fiber.  Thanks to SparkPeople, you likely have learned about the benefits of fiber for adults.  Fiber has the same benefits in children. It can help your child maintain a healthy weight by providing a feeling of fullness and satiety. Start with whole fruits.  (Avoid those juices!) Seek cereals with at least 3 grams of fiber.  Below are the fiber recommendations for children from the American Heart Association.
Gender/Age Fiber (grams)
1–3 years   19
4–8 years   25
9–13 years   
Female:   26
Male:   31
14–18 years    
Female:   29
Male:    38
  1. Eat only at the table! Children can learn to mindlessly eat just like adults--and remember they are watching us! Children can eat a bag of chips while playing on the computer or watching TV and a couple of hours later eat a full dinner.  These calories that are consumed without thought are easily forgotten and can add up quickly.  Make eating anywhere but the dinner table off limits.  Eating while running around, playing video games, watching TV or hanging out at the computer is not acceptable. 
  2. Limit TV, video games, and computer time (with the exception of active games on the Wii or Xbox Kinect).  I know that this is a hard one for us parents.  I’m a mother of 5 and I know that screen media can be great baby-sitters, but your kids need to burn calories.  Let them run and jump and play like we used to do.  Play active Wii games.  There are even exercise videos for children! Turn on music and encourage them to dance.  Do whatever it takes to get them to sweat! They need to move! You may need to wean your kids off these habits.  You may get some resistance at first but they will get the hang of it.  If you are consistent you will get results. 
  3. Educate your children.  I know this may be controversial, but your children need to know if they are at a healthy weight.  Quiz your children on healthy versus junk food.  Instead of just saying "No!" in the grocery store when they ask for sugary cereal, explain to them how to look for a healthy cereal and why they should pick a healthy cereal.   Older children have the ability to understand the concept of calories in and calories out.  They can be taught how to read food labels.  Give your child some credit.  They do have to ability to learn how to take care of their bodies through good nutrition.  Your child’s pediatrician should be able to assist you with the appropriate portion sizes and possibly even calories for your children.  If you are not getting the answers you seek, then request a referral to a dietitian. I highly recommend SparkTeens as a resource, available to teens age 13 and up. 
  4. Limit unhealthy options.  You possess the power to influence your child’s intake.  If there is no access to chips, cookies, ice cream, and sugary junky cereals then they will have no other options in the home.  Your children may put up a fight (one of my sons did) but they will get over it.  If you are having some problems with sticking to the "no junk food rule" as a parent you may need to look at other areas to see if there are discipline issues that need to be addressed.   
  5. Sports.  Individual or team sports.  Organized leagues or pick-up games. It doesn’t matter.  Find an activity (or activities) that your child can do that they like and can see themselves doing for years to come.  Encourage your child to enjoy exercise at a young age.  Remind them that they will need to consistently exercise as adults, so find a sport (or sports) that they can do and enjoy forever.   The whole point is to encourage your child to learn to enjoy exercise at a young age.  Teach them and remind them that they will need to continue to consistently exercise as adults. And don't forget to show them, too! 
  6. Eat together as a family.  Do this, because it has research to back it up.  These kids probably eat more fruits and vegetables as a result of family meals and thus are less likely to snack on junk food. They are also able to model positive parent behavior as well leading to less picky behaviors and a willingness to try new foods.  Communicating as a family also reduces stress and may identify problems that the child may be having so that the parents can guide them to a resolution.  
I hope you enjoyed some of my tips for teaching your children healthy habits.  We live in the world of fast food, instant gratification, excessive stress, office jobs and sedentary leisure activities.  Start now if you want to take advantage of the days when you have a great deal of control and influence over your kids. 

There is no need to try to trick them into new habits.  Tell your children exactly why you have implemented the changes.  They can and will understand and will certainly thank you for it in the future! We are our children best teachers, so let’s teach!
What are your best tips for getting kids excited about living healthy lives? Do you have any questions for Dr. Birdie?
Editor's Note: Dr. Birdie Varnedore, M.D., is happy to offer her expertise to the SparkPeople community; however, she cannot offer specific medical advice to dailySpark readers. Please do not share confidential medical information here. If you have a personal question or a concern about your health, please contact your health-care provider.

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great tips for a mom trying to raise two healthy girls. thanks for the info! Report
One of the best articles on raising healthy kids that I have ever read! She covered all the bases and didn't sugar-coat the truth! Thank you Dr. Birdie! Report
Do you know... how many calories the kids have to eat to loose weight slowly and how many cups of water the need it a day too? One of my kids is 6 year old and weigth 88 pounds. Report
One thing that I do to increase vegetable intake is to put the raw vegetable tray on before supper. My kids dive in the half hour before. After supper , we try to spend a half hour doing something active with them. Hopefully, it is getting them on the right track to an active lifestyle! Report
But isn't it disgusting when a 12 yr. old wants a Coke for breakfast because her mother (who has a doctorate) and her grandmother are both drinking them as soon as they get up in the morning???
I cook healthy foods for the kids and they have become good vegetable and fruit eaters, but I can't control everything. Signed, concerned Grandma. Report
One comment I would make is that denying kids all the sweets and treats they want can backfire in later years. I have known kids who were severely restricted as young children go crazy buying soda, candy, ice cream, etc., as soon as they were old enough and had part-time jobs. So I allow a certain amount, all the while trying to explain to my son (age 10) why I don't want him to have much of these things. Soft drinks are the big problem, but my rule is that he can't have any during the week, one on the weekend, but only if we are eating out, which is pretty rare. Report
Because I worked, my daughter started choosing her own lunches in 1st grade. She could pack only cookies or chips if she wanted. Sounds awful, doesn't it? But MY trick was, I only bought those items a couple of times a year! If she ate them all in a week, she never had a "treat" for months to come! With that she learned to make wise choices and to spread "treats" out over time. We discussed healthy foods, had a lot of them available, and used fast food as little as we could (busy lives necessitate it sometimes). Thirty years later, she still makes healthy food choices! Report
My son is already very active. It's nothing unusual for him to be a sweaty mess from running around so much. The trouble is his eating habits. If it tastes good to him, he wants to eat it, whether it's healthy or not. I'm trying to correct this behavior by offering him fruit when he asks for fruit snacks, or a cereal bar at the very least when he asks for candy. He doesn't drink soda and I recently learned that bottled lemonade is just as bad as soda, so I've switched him to a natural, no preservatives, no HFCS brand that is only water, lemons and cane sugar (sugar is still present but not as badly as with soda or the other lemonades). He drinks nothing but water at daycare unless it's mealtime - then it's only skim milk. We drink skim milk at home as well. It's the food that concerns me. He's 95th percentile in weight, but he's also 90th percentile in height. I think considering his height, he's probably going to be ok if we can just get those food habits under control. Unfortunately, no matter how many times I ask, I have a hard time getting Grandmas to follow my direction - they offer up juice, fruit snacks, cookies, etc, as soon as they walk in the door, even though I've asked them not to. Any advice you'd have for getting others on-board with our attempts at making our kids healthy would be greatly appreciated. Report
I have a 6 yr. old son who is very energetic and a 7 yr. old daughter who would rather sit and watch the butterflies in the shade. My husband comes home sweaty from the gym and works in the yard til almost passing out. I have lost 53 lbs and exercise right in front of them encouraging them to join. My daughter will help me cook and make recipes, but can fake out the Wii fit in jogging and cops out in the Michael Jackson Wii.

We are starting a new thing today for treats and desserts. If you want one you must do 10 mins. of exercise. Mom and Dad, too. Hopefully, it will work.

I'm going to try the mixing of Cheerios also. Thanks Dr. Birdie!!

rumbamel Report
I love this post. Childhood obesity is definitely an important subject. It saddens me when I see an overweight children who picked up the same bad habits as their parents. I agree with your tips for all families. Those are guidelines we go by in my house and my children are active and at a healthy weight. Report
Terrific advice, Dr. Birdie! Kids CAN learn to eat well. My 8-yr-old daughter's absolutely favorite treat is one she makes herself, and it's loaded with protein, calcium, and probiotics, and it's low in sugar and fat. We take a 4 oz paper cup and fill it with real fruit-flavored kefir, which is basically liquid yogurt. Then we take a plastic spoon and stick it in the cup and put some scotch tape across the top to hold the spoon in the middle. Then we stick it in the freezer. She loves to peel off the scotch tape, find the seam in the paper cup and peel the cup off the frozen kefir. Then she has the healthiest popsicle ever, and she can nurse one of those for half an hour! We also just got her a new jump rope and knee and elbow pads so she can ride her bike. I'm so happy my girl is in good shape, and I'm doing everything I can to help her stay that way. Report
i struggle with getting my son to eat fruit and vegetables - he is almost 12; he will eat veggies at dinner but a limited selection (brocolli but no stems, peas, romaine lettuce salad, corn, potatoes) - he is overweight now and he pushes back when i suggest he eat healthy....i dont know what to do about that... Report
My kid practically wrestles the vegetables from his dad and I at supper. Not sure how that happened, but hope it continues as he gets older. Report
I struggle with some of these because my 4-year-old has always been underweight (failure to thrive as an infant and many feeding issues) so I always push calories calories calories. It's hard to know how to do that (which is necessary) and still instill healthy eating habits she will need as an adult. Any advice? Report
#9 Sports

I have to agree with NANCYBFULLER. I do not have any children of my own but my parents placed me in many different sports when I was a child. When I was older, I was allowed to choose one sport per season. When I was younger, they picked the sports for me and forced me to go to practices/games/etc to keep a commitment. I hated many of the sports they picked and it turned me off sports all together for years. I still much prefer solitary exercise due to my bad experiences at that time in my life. Parents - please listen to your children. I think they will let you know what they are interested in doing if you give them options. If you leave open lines of communication they will tell you if they are unhappy with the sport/team they have joined. Please allow them to express this and weigh their negative feelings when you are deciding whether they should continue. Report
All of these tips seem sensible except for the one about teaching kids to count calories. We are diet obsessed enough as adults. Let's stick to helping kids make healthy food choices and being active and leave the calorie counting off the table. Report
I appreciate the tips. We struggle with eating healthily as a family. We joined the YMCA last month are are doing fitness together; ellipticals, treadmills, stationary bikes and the like. It is a good middle ground for the "non team sporters"
My children struggle with healthy veggies/fruit. They would choose the fattening foods first and it's frustrating for me. I got a wii this past week and so far my son likes the sports one. It at least gets him off the playstation and makes him want to play more active games. I enjoyed reading this blog! Report
#7 Educate Your Children
I so very much believe in this one. And I started at a young age. I didn't talk about their weight so much as the nutrients found in the food they were eating and what it would do for them. I told my kids "Eat the lettuce in your salad. It has fiber and will help you poop". Or, "eat your chicken. It has a lot of protein and protein helps your muscles get stronger."
As they got older, especially my daughter as she's 16, I brought in eating healthy and exercising as a way to control her weight and most especially, to boost her mood.
Both my kids are well within their healthy weight ranges and it feels great when my daughter makes healthy choices without prompting. She's decided on her own to limit her soda intake to one a week. I'd like to think my comments over the years about the phosphates in the sodas eating away at her bones had something to do with that. Report
Thanks, Dr. Birdie! I'd done the calculation about sugared soft drinks before. To make the stats a bit more jaw-dropping, notice that drinking two 20-ounce sodas a day will pack on a whopping 50 pounds in one year's time. Report
I need to work on limiting my children's game time. Thanks for the tips! Very insightful. Report
My four-year-old understands that food gives her energy and that having the right food means more energy to do the things she enjoys (playing!)

She knows she needs to eat fruits and vegetables at every meal and her juice is either Motts for Tots or a 50/50 water mix.

Sometimes she tells my husband and I "the energy rules!"
#8 Limit unhealthy options.:
In more specific words,
KEEP the CRAP out of the house,
make sugary treats, just that, A TREAT,
NOT the norm.
Take the kids to a place of treats (i.e Baskin Robbins etc) when they help you go shopping or buy them a candy bar (get it? = "singular") while you are shopping.
do NOT buy the sugary ('frosted') cereals Report
Be careful on choosing a sport for your child. I remember not being good at sports, and always being chosen last, made fun of etc, did more to make me dislike excercise than to like it. Even hiking, if the group runs off ahead and leaves you hiking in the dust is not fun. I do like hiking today, but only in small groups or alone. Report
We already do a lot of this as a family. My children do eat cakes but usually homemade. They rarely watch TV but don't do a lot of organised sport. Neither my husband or myself are naturally sporty. I think my children are though so I will be looking for ways to help them out in this area. I have taken up exercise in the past 18 months.

I really believe Children can get into the habit of eating. We gave ours snacks when they were young and now they say 'It is ?? oclock, time for a snack.' I am not sure they are always hungry. However, often the snacks are fruit.

Great blog. Report
Thanks for the article, am doing most of these things with my sons. Except computers are the best gate way to keep my ADHD kids interested in school.. Most advanced schools in denmark do homework and home communication via internet and computer- it is hard to limit the future.. I would love pen and paper to used more, problem is ADHD kids sometimes don't always respond with their motor skills as fast as other school mates.. This was one of the ways I found out my oldest son had a problem, his teacher complaining no homework and slow at stuff.. He got examined and was given a double diagnose including asperges.. With a computer as a help aid, it has kept both my heavy diagnose kids in normal schools and they have passed exams like any other kid without ADHD..
My kids are social normal and a computer helps avoid them feeling different and too slow..
Live role gaming is a passion for my oldest boy, he is into viking stuff where they dress up and play out a role game out in a forest or a paddock in a huge corps of people.. My youngest is into weight training and is a real challenge to have at the gym.. We tried ball sports but because of his growth deficit and size is is simply too small to put with other teenagers of his age group.. He got too many injuries, including a rotator cuff that is still not okay from danish handball.. He is only 16 years old and I draw the line at him continuing sports that give serious injuries..
Sometimes difficult kids you just have to sit down with and ask them what they feel like trying.. I would love my youngest son to continue at the gym, but even if I go regularly since 2004 he losses interest.. It was tough for him digesting trainers coming up to him while doing stuff- he is super strong and the fact they talk to him simply interupted his train of thought.. I have make equipment at home available and hope he will keep using it occassionally.. Eating healthy is no problem, but I do worry if he doesn't keep moving he will experience another serious leg fracture like when he started school.. 8 weeks in plaster confined to wheel chair, 3 plaster changes before it healed.. And the fact he had no growth areas at the end of his bones.. He was under a special department and given growth hormones- like in insulin form and checked from time to time by speicalists..
Huge challenges to keep kids active, I will keep stuff you wrote in mind.. It is tough when I have both of them together as are so different.. I am a widow..
Many times I lack ressources if stimulated correctly other people never know about their ADHD unless I tell them.. Report
community helps kids have better habits Report
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