How to reset your kids’ diet to keep them from overeating during COVID

By Brandy Centolanza

Virtual learning, lack of sports and exercise and round-the-clock access to food and snacking while stuck at home throughout the pandemic may lead to weight gain and other health issues for children. But moms and dads can help set the stage for healthy eating and fitness habits for their kids during this trying time.

“The pandemic has created a unique set of circumstances for children and families,” says Dr. Nimali Fernando, a pediatrician with Yum Pediatrics and founder of The Doctor Yum Project. “Children are home more than they are used to. Typically, at school, they eat their meals at set times, but while quarantined at home, many families have found themselves without the structure of a schedule. Many older kids are staying up late into the night. Without a schedule, snacking and overeating is much easier to do.”

Some families may also be chowing down more as a result of stress eating as they deal with possible feelings of uncertainty, anxiety or depression. Compounding the situation is hours of screen time without regular physical activity.

Fernando suggests families work on maintaining a schedule while everyone is at home, setting specific times for meals and shutting down the kitchen to remind children when it is not a time for eating.

“Pack lunch ahead of time, even if you are distance learning,” Fernando says. “This way you are being intentional about portion size and making sure your meal is balanced. Cook together and make trying healthy foods and making new recipes a priority.”

The Doctor Yum Project offers online resources to help families with recipe ideas for healthy cooking.

“Cooking with families can also be an extension of school, where kids can explore concepts like math, science, and vocabulary as you cook together,” she says. “Even very young children can practice things like fine motor skills as they help prepare foods. Finally, cooking together is an opportunity to make friends with new foods and help kids to try healthy foods they may not be used to.”

Nancy Farrell Allen, a registered dietitian nutritionist in Fredericksburg and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, adds that parents should lead by example.

“It’s not about preventing snacking,” Farrell Allen says. “The foods you have in your home sets the tone for what your family eats regularly and how they behave at snack time. Serve up healthy snacks that include a produce and a protein.”

This may include an apple or pear and a cheese stick; berries and yogurt; cocktail cucumbers and almonds; or celery with nut butter and raisins, otherwise known as “Ants on a Log.”  Children should also be encouraged to eat more foods with fiber, whole grains, whole fruits, low-fat dairy products, meat alternatives and vegetables at every lunch and dinner.

“Keep in mind that food should not be used as a reward,” Farrell Allen says. “Avoid eating through emotions like boredom or stress. Daily physical activity is best at controlling emotional appetite. Kids will mirror the actions of their caregivers. Try your best to eat healthy the majority of the time, keep nutrient-rich food options in the pantry, commit to daily exercise and set guidelines for ‘lights out.’”