Children of all ages need to be well-nourished and physically active. Poor nutrition and lack of physical activity in childhood can increase the risk of heart disease, Type 2 Diabetes, and high blood pressure throughout life. Studies have shown that poor nutrition in childhood can even contribute to health problems such as obesity and diabetes in future generations.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the rate of childhood obesity is triple that of a generation ago. Obesity now affects 17% of all children and adolescents in the United States.
As the National Director of Eco-Healthy Child Care®, and the mother of 2 small children, I know the importance of good nutrition and physical activity. I also know that finding time and energy for exercise and to provide healthy meals that children want to eat can be difficult. At Eco-Healthy Child Care®, we strive to empower caretakers with easy-t0-implement ideas for fostering the growth and development of happy, healthy children. Below are some simple steps that parents and caregivers can take to ensure that their children are well-nourished, active, and healthy.
Cooking food from scratch using fresh, whole ingredients and minimizing the amount of packaged food used is ideal. Packaged, processed foods are typically high in added sugar and salt and often use chemical additives, artificial flavors, and unhealthy sweeteners such as high fructose corn syrup that are harmful to developing bodies and brains. Putting whole or bulk foods in re-useable, compostable bags also reduces waste and helps avoid exposure to harmful chemicals often used in cans and plastic packaging.
Cooking fresh foods from scratch may seem time-consuming or expensive, but it doesn’t have to be! I like the quick, healthy, and inexpensive meal ideas on cookinglight.com, for starters. Salads are also a quick, easy way to pack in a lot of nutrients that require minimal preparation. I like to experiment with fun and healthy ingredients like seasonal fruit. Let kids help with easy tasks like rinsing vegetables or tossing the salad. Strawberry mint salad is a favorite in our house! I also like to make healthy colorful soups and stews that can simmer while I complete other tasks and can be frozen and eaten as leftovers or used to make casseroles later.
When you do buy packaged foods, here are some general guidelines for making healthier choices. One is that the shorter the ingredients list (and the fewer hard-to-pronounce items on it), the better. Other things to look for are low sugar and sodium contents and high fiber content. When possible, local and organic products free of pesticides and preservatives are better for workers, the environment, and your family. If you have a local farmers market, visiting the market and getting to know your local farmers can be a fun family or group activity that engages children with their food and where it comes from. Farmers markets are also typically a more affordable way to buy local, organic produce, and many of them provide incentive programs for buying fruits and vegetables. Recipients of SNAP (food stamp) and WIC benefits can use their benefits at increasing numbers of markets around the country, and many markets offer double value on healthy food purchases with these programs.
Another Eco-Healthy tip is to think twice about fruit juice! Fruit juices may seem like a healthy choice but they often contain a lot of added sugar and thus empty calories, contributing to childhood obesity and poor oral health. We recommend replacing fruit juice with water infused with whole fruit. Whole fruit is nutrient-rich and a great source of fiber, and water is free and healthy. Additionally, the money saved by replacing juice with water can help offset the cost of local and organic produce.
Exercise is also very important for children’s health and physical, intellectual, and social development . Some things that young children can do to stay active are:
- Go for a walk
- Go for a bike ride
- Make up a dance
- Play on the playground
- Kick or throw a ball
- Play tag
- Practice tumbling
- Run around the yard
- Help with gardening and planting flowers or vegetables (this also reinforces good, Eco-Healthy nutrition)
- Take stairs instead of elevators when possible
The Eco-Healthy Child Care ® Nutrition and Physical Activity Fact Sheet offers many more tips and resources for well-nourished, active children. EHCC helps early childhood learning environments to be as healthy, safe and green as possible by reducing children’s exposure to toxic chemicals. To see the fact sheet and learn more about how to improve nutrition and physical activity for children click here.