When your preschooler has cute chubby little cheeks or an extra roll or two around her middle, how do you sit down and talk about healthy weight?
You don't talk about weight, say parenting and weight experts.
"Talk about healthy eating and healthy habits and say things like, 'This food will make you stronger!'" says Stephanie Walsh, MD, medical director of child wellness at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta. "I would never bring up weight. What does that mean to someone their age?"
Like you teach young kids that brushing their teeth and taking baths are important ways to stay healthy, tell them that eating healthy foods and keeping their bodies moving are also important for their bodies. This should be the approach whether your child is overweight or not.
"It's really important to talk to kids at every age and over time about the importance of nutrition and physical activity," says Marlene Schwartz, PhD, deputy director of the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity.
"Parents make the mistake that if kids are really small, it doesn't matter. Like, 'Young kids are picky, and if all they eat are chicken nuggets and french fries, it's OK. They'll grow out of it.' But it's not OK."
It's not OK because when kids don't eat well or aren't active, that can lead to being overweight or obese. And overweight kids are at risk for health problems such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol, even in childhood. Overweight and obese kids are also at risk of developing sleep apnea, asthma, and liver damage.
While scary, those medical concerns won't resonate with your kids. You have to reach them on their level. Have ongoing conversations, with even young children, about how healthy foods and moving and playing will make their bodies strong. For example, it will help them run fast and feel good. Talk to them about it whenever you have a chance -- like while shopping at the supermarket, making dinner, choosing a weekend activity, or setting up play dates.
What to Say
Registered dietitian Sarah Krieger, spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, offers guidelines for how to strike up a conversation about healthy lifestyle choices in everyday situations.
Talk about: Why you pick one food over another
For example: "This will make you stronger."
When: Making dinner
Talk about: Why foods are good for you
For example: "Carrots help our eyes."
When: Being active as a family
Talk about: How exercise helps your body and how it makes you feel
For example: "Being outside makes me happy, and biking is great for our legs and hearts."
Making Healthy Habits
At this age, your child depends exclusively on you for food and activity. So you can have a huge positive impact on his health. It's up to you to make the changes that will help him get the healthiest foods and enough activity.
"As parents, we're responsible for bringing good food to the table and for making activity fun," says pediatrician Walsh. It's a parent's job to decide what food comes into the house. If healthy food is in the house, that's what your child will eat. You also can enroll your child in sports or active classes that she likes. "If play is fun, they'll continue to love to move and be active their whole lives," she says.
It's important to make sure the whole family's on board. Mom can't sit and eat ice cream in front of the TV while expecting an overweight child to play and move. Come up with activities -- hiking, basketball, dancing -- that everyone will enjoy. Then moving becomes a fun family habit.
The same goes for mealtime. Don't serve a separate meal for the child who's not at a healthy weight while the rest of the family gets fried chicken and butter-soaked biscuits. Everyone at the table should eat a meal that is half made up of veggies. The other half should be made up of a side of lean meat and a side of whole grains.
That way eating well and regular activity become habits for everyone, and you're setting the groundwork for a lifetime of healthiness.
That doesn't mean foods become "good" and "bad" with the bad ones being totally off-limits, says registered dietitian Krieger.
"We want kids to enjoy their foods and not feel bad about eating anything," she says. Don't keep candy and sodas in your house. But if your kids are at a party, for example, let them eat the cake and ice cream.
When Kids Think They are Fat
As much as you may not want to, sometimes you have to address the issue of weight with your child because she brings it up with you first.
Louisiana State University professor Melinda Sothern occasionally has run into preschoolers obsessed with weight. "I've seen 3-year-olds who want their moms to put them on a diet because they think they're fat."
Most of that weight awareness is due to teasing, says Southern. "Even though there are more and more kids who are overweight, that doesn't mean there is more acceptance. They are still going to get teased because they can't keep up on the playground."
Even young children can tease each other about weight, says Schwartz. They may see that an overweight child doesn't run as fast or play as much.
"They might actually say, 'I don't like that person because she's fat,' and that's a real opportunity for parents to say, 'You can't know what's somebody's like by the size of their body.'"
If your child is on the receiving end of that prejudice, sit down and talk about that teasing or bullying. Explain how much you love your child, and find out how the teasing made her feel. Then work together on a plan to make her feel better while making healthy lifestyle changes.
Get more tips on how to talk to your child when she's been teased about her weight.