Help your children (and yourself) maintain a healthy attitude toward food and fitness.

By Anna Davies

Expert Q&As

Q. My son comes home from school and heads straight for the sofa—and video games. How can I get him to be more active?

A. Set a one- to two-hour daily limit on TV, computer, and video game time (studies have linked these activities to weight gain), and make physical activity a family priority, suggests Sandra Hassink, M.D., editor of A Parent's Guide to Childhood Obesity (American Academy of Pediatrics). Structure your weekends around outings, such as hikes, bike rides, and trips to a state park, to get your son used to the idea that fitness can be fun. Take advantage of what your community has to offer by joining the local YMCA, and team up with neighborhood parents to organize softball games, soccer matches, and ultimate Frisbee tournaments. If your son doesn't like the pressure of team sports, encourage him to try other activities, such as swimming, karate, or track. Even extracurriculars that don't seem particularly strenuous, like playing in the marching band or taking part in a school play, are much better than sitting on the couch, says Dr. Hassink.

Q. My daughter has put on some extra pounds. What should I do?

A. "In puberty, kids sometimes gain weight right before a major growth spurt, so it may be temporary," says Julie Lumeng, M.D., research investigator at the Center for Human Growth and Development at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Make an appointment with her pediatrician so he can determine whether the extra pounds put her health at risk. If the doctor decides that she should indeed lose weight, give the whole family a nutrition makeover instead of singling her out.

The dinner table is a great place to start developing wholesome behavior. "Eating meals together is the number one way to teach your child healthy eating habits," says Rallie McAllister, M.D., author of Healthy Lunchbox: The Working Mom's Guide to Keeping You and Your Kids Trim (Lifeline Press). Include lean meats (like turkey burgers and barbecued chicken), fruits and veggies, whole-grain breads, and low-fat and nonfat dairy products. Bring your kids to the grocery store so they can pick out healthy foods that they like—so they'll actually eat them. When you get home, have the kids divide up snacks—like pretzels, raisins, and dried fruits—into single-serving plastic bags for a quick course in portion control.

For more info on what constitutes a healthy menu, make an appointment with a registered dietician. Find one at:

Q. My teenage son is constantly complaining about being smaller than his friends and wants to start weight lifting. Is it safe?

A. "Strength training is not only safe for adolescents, it can also lay the groundwork for a healthy lifestyle," says Lyle Micheli, M.D., director of the Division of Sports Medicine at Children's Hospital Boston. Kids as young as 8 years old can safely use light weights with supervision. But before your teen dusts off the barbells in the basement, Dr. Micheli recommends signing him up for one or two sessions with a trainer to develop a safe program that's appropriate for his age and fitness level. Improper lifting and overdoing it can cause injury, so make sure he follows the trainer's recommendations and rests for at least a day between workouts. If he lifts more than two or three times per week, seems obsessed with body image, starts skipping favorite activities to work out, or you suspect he is taking performance-enhancing supplements, ask him why he's so fixated on weight training and talk to his doctor.

Q. Whenever I go on a diet, my daughter wants to do the same. The problem is, she doesn't need to lose weight—she's already too thin. What should I do?

A. In a Penn State University study, researchers found that weight-conscious moms were more likely to raise daughters with dangerous eating habits. Keep your teenager healthy by ditching the word "diet," which sends the message that making smart food choices means you have to deprive yourself, says Dr. McAllister. Explain to your daughter that you need to slim down primarily for health reasons, and you're going to do that by switching to more nutritious versions of your favorite foods (frozen yogurt instead of ice cream; carrots and hummus instead of chips and dip; flavored seltzer instead of sugary soda and fruit juice, for example). Don't rely on quick-fix diets that promise fast results; chances are they won't be successful in the long term, and you'll be teaching your daughter that being thin is more important than being healthy.

Q. I often overhear my daughter and her friends (all of whom are fairly thin) discussing dieting. Should I be worried?

A. Possibly. "Create a dialogue about weight with your daughter to determine whether you need to be concerned," says Dr. Hassink. Use pop culture as a conversation starter. Grab a celebrity magazine and flip through it together as you discuss whether the stars you see look healthy. Then bring the discussion back to her—is she concerned about her own body? If so, ask her why, and tell her you think she looks great. Explain the difference between a healthy lifestyle, which includes a variety of good-for-you foods, and a restrictive diet. If she still seems preoccupied with her appearance or you notice unusual eating habits (see "Eating Disorder Red Flags" on the next page), make an appointment with her pediatrician.

Red Flags and Taboos

Eating Disorder Red Flags

More than 8 million Americans suffer from eating disorders, many of which develop in adolescence, says Marlene Schwartz, Ph.D., codirector of the Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders. "Parents need to watch their kids for signs of a problem." If you notice any of the following red flags, make an appointment with your child's doctor:

  • Skips meals, makes excuses for not eating or eats very little.
  • Food disappears from the kitchen, or you find hidden treats or used wrappers.
  • Completely avoids "unhealthy" foods, even as a special treat (like cake at a party), or obsesses over calories or nutrition facts.
  • Leaves the table immediately after meals to purge in the bathroom or runs the shower at odd times. Red eyes and frequent sore throats can also indicate forced vomiting.

Kitchen Table Taboos

Forget old-school phrases that your mom used to say to entice you to eat those veggies. Dr. McAllister explains why.

  • "Clean your plate." Forcing your children to finish everything may teach them to ignore their own hunger and satiety signals.
  • "If you have a snack, you'll spoil your dinner." Providing fruits, veggies, and yogurt for snack options will help your kids get essential nutrients.
  • “Eat your broccoli so you can have ice cream." Using dessert as a reward sets your kids up for a lifetime of overeating because it makes them associate feelings of acceptance, approval, and comfort with food.