1. Teach by example.
A Prevention survey found that children whose parents keep in shape are much more likely to have healthy body weights themselves. "There's nothing worse than telling a child what he needs to do and not doing it yourself," says Elizabeth Ward, R.D., a Boston nutritional consultant and author of Healthy Foods, Healthy Kids (Adams Media, 2002). "Set a good example and get your nutritional house in order first."
2. Don't say "clean your plate."
Young children instinctively know how much food they need. That instinct can disappear, however, when parents serve kids overly large portions or push them to eat more. A study at Penn State University in University Park illustrated this: When three-year-olds were served a larger-than-normal serving of macaroni and cheese, they ate only until their hunger was satisfied; five-year-olds, on the other hand, chowed down to excess. Encourage kids to eat enough to satisfy their appetites and stop before they're truly full.
3. Play with your kids.
Parents who regularly exercise with their children reduce their risk of becoming overweight. "Kids really mimic what their parents do—and that includes physical activity," says Reginald Washington, M.D., chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics' task force on obesity. "Engage children in activities with you, such as taking walks or riding bikes together." In the Prevention survey, 76 percent of kids said they actually like to exercise with their parents, and those who did were less apt to experiment with tobacco, alcohol, and drugs. Gardening with your kids is a great way for all of you to burn calories.
4. Revive the family dinner.
Children whose families usually sit down to a home-cooked meal at the table are less likely to be fat than those who eat out or bring food in, according to the Prevention survey. And it's no wonder: Research has found that kids who regularly eat dinner with their families consume more fruits and vegetables and less soda and fat. Plus, many children who are overweight tend to eat rapidly: "By engaging kids in conversation, you slow down the eating process, which gives kids a chance to register fullness," says William Cochran, M.D, chairman of the AAP's section on gastroenterology and nutrition. "I tell my overweight patients to have a bite, put down the fork, and talk to Mom or Dad about something that happened that day before having another bite."
5. Don't use food as a reward.
This simply teaches kids to eat for comfort or to associate food with "being good"—a big mistake. If your child gets an A on her report card, don't reward her with a trip to the ice cream shop; take her to the zoo or her favorite park instead.