Mother Really Knows Best

Nutritionist and dietician moms shed light on how they fostered their own kids’ healthy habits.

September 2011

By Beverly Burmeier

You don’t need to see the statistics on child obesity to know we have an epidemic on our hands. Just look around, and it’s clear that many of the kids you see hanging around the mall aren’t getting much more exercise than working their fingers in a seemingly endless rapid-fire succession of texts to their friends. Their diet is probably not much better, judging from their girth and the long lines at fast-food restaurants.

Conventional wisdom says childhood habits carry over to adulthood, so now’s the time to get
kids thinking about health. Relying solely on hiding pureed veggies in their food won’t cut it anymore.
Strategies abound, however, for educating kids about health, nutrition and fitness. We’ve turned to the sources who are doubly qualified and can provide some of the best insights into promoting childhood health: moms who are also nutritionists, dieticians and other healthcare professionals and apply at home the strategies they have embraced in their careers. For these women, health and nutrition truly is a full-time endeavor.


Kimberly Evans

Encouraging Kids to Try New Foods

“You don’t have to eat everything you love, and you don’t have to love everything you eat.” That advice from Kimberly Evans, a registered dietician in Burlington, Vermont, is good for both children and adults. “Kids learn by example, so it’s up to parents to model healthy eating and exercise habits,” adds the marathoner mother of five, ages 7 to 15, who helps athletes maximize their potential through good nutritional habits.

Children need to see, touch and become familiar with new foods before trying them, she says. If parents can make this a fun family adventure, children will become comfortable with new tastes.

Children can say “no, thank you” at the Evans house, but they must try at least a bite of anything offered. When Evans’ oldest son was five, he turned up his nose at asparagus but dutifully stuck a piece in his baguette to take that bite. “What happened next was not a pretty sight,” she says, recalling how he quickly ran to the bathroom in disgust. “The fact he hadn’t actually taken a bite of the asparagus at all and had to try again helped him understand how powerful thoughts can be. He never balked again.”

Rather than just talking about weight and exercise, Evans suggests discussing why a healthy body is important. Explain how we need calcium for bones, protein for energy and grains for alertness.
Involve kids in food shopping and encourage them to read labels. When a package of chocolate dip next to strawberries caught the eye of Evans’ seven-year-old she suggested he read the label. He found all sorts of unappealing ingredients. “How will you feel when you eat that?” she asked and then offered an alternative—melted chocolate chips as a dip. “When kids think about how what they eat makes them feel,” Evans says, “the rest is easy.”


Kathy Kaehler

Making Exercise Fun

“Food and fitness go hand in hand; one doesn’t work without the other,” says American Council on Exercise-certified celebrity trainer and food coach Kathy Kaehler. The Los Angeles mother of three boys and co-author with Ashley Koff of Mom Energy (Hay House) says you have to move your body if you want more energy—and that’s just as true for your children.

If her 11- to 15-year-old kids are getting sedentary, she suggests a romp on the trampoline. “They love it and it’s part of my workout, too,” Kaehler says. She also suggests planning events that require movement such as bowling or dancing. Her family’s vacations blend activity with nature—hiking, skiing, or kayaking. “Any kind of exercise will increase circulation, give you more energy and help you feel better all around,” Kaehler adds. “Make it fun, make it a priority and get it done.”

Kaehler takes meal planning to a new level by setting up a variety of components at the beginning of each week. Grains, vegetables and meats are prepped so they can be eaten as snacks or cooked for a meal. “My kids help with the food prep, and they enjoy taking ownership for assembling and preparing their own meals,” she says. She teaches them to look for colors of the rainbow when selecting foods at the market, eat foods that are as close to their natural state as possible and avoid overly processed foods with numerous ingredients.

To help manage individual preferences, she has instituted the 90/10 principle: Most of the time selections should be healthy but occasionally it’s okay to indulge in special treats. “My kids are free to make choices,” she says. “I never say no but encourage them to make the best choices or to think about what might be their option next time.”


Deborah Gilboa

Limiting Screen Time

Pittsburgh family physician Deborah Gilboa, MD ( speaks and writes on parenting topics. With four active boys between the ages of 3 and 9, she practices what she preaches about integrating nutrition and fitness.

The Gilboa family’s code of behavior includes guidelines that she also recommends to clients. Her children are allowed no more than two hours of screen time per day (includes video games, television, movies and computer). “My kids set a timer,” Gilboa says. “If they go over the allotted time, they lose all screen time for the next day.”

The boys are allowed only eight ounces of sweetened drinks a day. Water is the drink of choice, and they often select chocolate milk for their splurge.

Breakfast is non-negotiable. “I tell patients eating in the morning isn’t an option, but sitting at the table is. So they could choose a take-along meal such as a healthy granola bar, protein-rich sandwich or yogurt with granola and fruit if they’re not hungry or don’t get up in time.” Gilboa adds, “We don’t eat out or bring in prepared food from outside more than once a week.”

Moderate to vigorous exercise at least 60 minutes every day is encouraged. “If kids participate in four activities a day such as team sports, bike riding, roller skating or playing at a park, they’re getting enough exercise,” Gilboa says. “When my son was in third grade, he needed to choose between soccer and chess for an after-school activity.

He decided chess involved more sitting and chose soccer because it allowed him to run around.”

Gilboa recommends a pedometer for kids under age 12. “They love things that count, so it’s a great motivator for taking extra steps. Older kids may respond to a reward system—say an extra 15 minutes of screen time for every hour of exercise.”


Kara Thom

Setting a Marathon Example

Growing up with a mom who runs marathons and does triathlons might be daunting for many kids. But for Minnesota mom Kara Thom’s four young children training sessions are a normal part of life.

It wasn’t always that way. When her twins were born eight years ago, Thom looked forward to spending a few moments alone while pursuing fitness activities. Then she realized the girls were emulating her lifestyle in their creative play—they imagined running races and going to the gym in addition to playing school or house. Thom transitioned from the “me-time” frame of mind to accepting her role as a model for her children.

“I wrote See Mom Run (Breakaway Books) to help balance my roles as a mom and an athlete,” says the author of several fitness books. When training for her first marathon after having kids, Thom didn’t think her preschoolers really understood what Mom was doing until one daughter asked her to read See Mom Run the night before that race. Recently another daughter asked, “Will your book still be alive when I’m a mommy so I can read it?”

It will come in handy because it’s a sure bet the Thom children will be active adults. The eight-year-old twins participated in their first triathlon last summer and the six-year-old is already planning her debut next year. “They like being active—they roller skate, ride bikes and climb trees,” Thom says.

“We do active things because it’s fun for the family.”

To spark their interest even further, Thom’s older girls have watches that monitor how many minutes of medium to vigorous activity they engage in during the day. “It provides a little healthy competition,” Thom says.

“Parents should exercise themselves, exercise with their children and help kids find their own fitness passions,” Thom says. Her children already reflect this philosophy.


Bethany Thayer

Making Good Food Choices

Bethany Thayer, a registered dietician from Detroit developed strategies for her Heart-Smart Kids Cookbook (Turtleback Books) that she uses with her own boys, ages 10 and 13. “First, set a good example with your own food choices,” Thayer says. Offer a variety of healthy foods at regularly scheduled times, recognizing that it may take many tries before your child accepts a new food.

Forget the “clean-plate club,” which encourages overeating. Let the child decide how much to eat. Use small plates and serve small portions, but allow second helpings if appropriate.

To promote moderation, avoid calling foods “good” or “bad.” After Thayer’s 10-year old learned to read labels, he began making that distinction but she helped him see that occasional treats are okay for special occasions.

Eat meals together as often as possible, she says. Studies show that children who eat family meals are more likely to consume foods with fiber, calcium, folate and other healthy nutrients. Eating together provides an opportunity to talk about nutrition and to show kids acceptable ways for incorporating treats into their diets.

Thayer cautions against bribing children with food or using food as a reward. “Hugs and kisses are better at reinforcing good behavior than cake and cookies,” she says. “Avoid talking about dieting or feeling fat in front of your kids. Those concepts can lead to eating disorders later.”

Teaching children to cook familiarizes them with the kitchen so they can help prepare meals. In fact, Thayer says families should start at the beginning—by planting a garden. “We’ve gotten away from recognizing where our food comes from. When children plant vegetables, watch them grow, then pick and prepare, they are more open to sampling different foods.”


Mary Jayne Johnson

Showing Interest in Children’s Activities

“Children learn three ways—by example, by example, by example,” a friend told Albuquerque-based exercise physiologist Mary Jayne Johnson, PhD, when her now-grown children were young. As a mom, Pilates instructor and spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise (, Johnson shares that advice with her clients.

“Because of my career, my children saw my own desire to be healthy through exercise and good nutrition,” Johnson says. They incorporated movement into family time: A visit to the park found Mom on swings with the kids. They walked and rode bikes together in good weather and hula-hooped indoors during winter.

Kids don’t move much at school, Johnson says, so parents need to provide opportunities at home. Parents who are not in the habit of exercising should reflect on why not, and think about ways to encourage family fun and bonding through movement.

“If children take an interest in an activity, be sure to show an extraordinary interest and help them develop their abilities,” she says. Johnson noticed her daughter was very strong on the monkey bars as young as two years old, so she enrolled her in a gymnastics class. She won awards and eventually landed a college scholarship. “When a friend’s daughter took up rock climbing, the parents also learned how, and now the family enjoys rock-climbing vacations together,” Johnson adds.

“Teach children to read labels when shopping and to choose vegetables and fruits just as you teach them to brush their teeth,” Johnson says. “Social and cultural influences may increase the challenge, but parents still teach best by example.”


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