The question: We all know the holidays throw off everyone's diets and waistlines. But what about kids? It's already hard enough to tell them "no" any other time of year. Should I be worried if they gorge themselves on turkey and sweets for a few days at Grandma's?
The answer: The holiday season is a time of celebration and, for many families, it is a time of feasting and special foods. Some of my fondest holiday memories include turkey dinners at my grandparent's home, and my mother's Christmas baking continues to be a much anticipated family tradition.
It can be difficult for adults and children alike to show restraint when tempting treats abound. I agree that parents probably don't want to be arguing with their children about food over the holidays. Frankly, a little indulgence at this time of year is not the end of the world.
This is the advice that I give to my patients to encourage healthy habits over the holidays without spoiling the fun.
1. Eat breakfast. Get each day started on the right foot by eating breakfast. This a great opportunity to offer multiple food groups like fruits, dairy and complex carbohydrates. This doesn't have to be complicated; a bowl of cereal with milk and banana slices covers all the bases. Include a children's multivitamin and you will have already gone a long way toward meeting your child's nutritional requirements for the day.
2. Include fruits and vegetables with every meal. Offering these staple foods at every meal will ensure that your holiday meals are well balanced and nutritious. Eating vegetables before and during your meals is a great way to fill up and reduce hunger. Vegetable trays with dip are especially popular in my home before meals, when the kids tend to be hungriest. Pairing fresh fruit with less-healthy dessert choices helps avoid overindulging in even more sweets. Consider splurging on fresh berries, mangos or other tropical fruit as a special festive treat.
3. Avoid the bottomless bowls of snacks. If you offer less nutritious snacks between meals, try to be mindful of portion sizes. Children (and adults!) tend to eat whatever is in front of them, whether they are hungry or not. I like to offer my kids their own small bowl of snack food rather than leaving out a large communal bowl. This helps curb endless, mindless snacking and also helps you keep track of your child's intake. Although nuts are a good source of protein, fibre and healthy fats, be mindful that they are also very high in calories. Offering nuts that must be removed from the shell before eating – think pistachios, peanuts in the shell and holiday mixed nuts – limits how fast you can eat and makes you work a little harder for your snack.
4. Eat together as a family. The benefits of eating meals together as a family have been well established. Families who eat together tend to have children who do better academically, and have lower levels of obesity and decreased risk of mental-health problems. My family particularly loves sharing meals this time of year as they frequently involve extended family members and close friends. Holiday meals are a great opportunity to talk about what Christmas was like when parents and grandparents were children, your most memorable Christmas present or your most embarrassing family holiday moment. And of course, turn off the television!
5. Stay active. Finally, a great way to counter those extra holiday calories is by staying active. I encourage families to take time each day for active play. My kids love to go tobogganing at the neighbourhood park before Christmas dinner. Build a snow fort or play kids-versus-adults road hockey. Skating, swimming and bowling are other examples of activities that can be enjoyed by all ages.
May your home be filled with good health and happiness this holiday season!
Dr. Michael Dickinson is the head of pediatrics and chief of staff at the Miramichi Regional Hospital in New Brunswick. He's a staunch advocate for children's health in Atlantic Canada through his involvement with the Canadian Paediatric Society.
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