A recent survey by the American Obesity Association (AOA) found that almost 30 percent of parents in the U.S. are concerned about their children’s weight and 12 percent considered their children to be overweight. Those fears are not unfounded. According to figures from the National Center for Health Statistics, the percentage of children ages 6 to 18 who are overweight has tripled in the last three decades, leaving both experts and parents scrambling for a solution. Not surprisingly, it boils down to this: physical activity and good nutrition are the cornerstones of preventing childhood obesity. It may sound like common sense, but how do you translate words into action at mealtime?

Poor eating habits in young children can impair growth, reduce cognitive ability, and set the stage for poor eating habits in adulthood. Children's diets can ensure a lifetime of good health, or they can fuel future disease. As parents, the choice (and the responsibility) between the two is ours.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Center For Nutrition Policy and Promotion uses what they call a Healthy Eating Index (HEI) to anyalze the diets and nutrition deficiencies of America's children. In a recent survey of children ages 2 to 9, researchers found that most of the children surveyed had a diet that either "needs improvement," or is "poor." Younger children had slightly higher scores than older children. The greatest decline in diet quality occurred between the age groups of 2-3 and 4-6. The percentage of children having a "good diet," fell from 36 to 17 percent between these two age groups.

The greatest factors that cause a decline in children's index scores is their under consumption of fruit and over consumption of sodium. Only 1/4 of children in the 7 to 9 age group eat the recommended amount of fruit and only 1/3 eat the recommended amount of sodium. This is a direct result of the increased amount of fast foods and salty snacks that children tend to eat at home and at school, as they get older.

As parents, we are ultimately responsible for what our children eat, but I can vouch for the fact that it is hard for most parents to compete with fast food drive-throughs and junk food commercials, especially when you're short on time. And school lunch programs that are heavy on sweets and soft drinks certainly don't help matters. So how can we get our kids to eat better without turning it into (yet another) power struggle? Here are a few tips for improving your whole family's nutrition:

  • Eat up: Eating regular meals that leave you full and satiated will help you and your kids stick to a healthier meal plan. Good nutrition does not involve starving or deprivation, rather it involves a healthy eating plan that keeps you in control of what you put in your mouth.
  • Plan ahead: The best way to ensure you stick with a healthy diet is to plan your meals and snacks ahead of time. If you know your kids will be famished after school, have some cut-up fruit or veggies ready for them in the car or at home to reduce the temptation that you'll be talked into hitting the drive-through for fries and sodas.
  • Keep it interesting: Variety and moderation are the keys to a good diet. You child's growing body needs over 40 different vitamins, minerals, and nutrients on a daily basis just to grow and function. Eating a variety of foods will help ensure that your child is getting the nutrients she needs.
  • Don’t give up: Temptations are always around you, and its so easy to give in to fast food drive through or an extra serving of desert. So don’t get too upset if your family's diet is less than optimal for a day. If you and your kids eat a nutritious diet most of the time, it will more than compensate for the days when it's not as great.
Nutrition deficits in America's children
American children eat a diet low in nutrients and high in junk. Here's how to fix it.