Worst Kid Health Habits

Parents usually have the best intentions when it comes to making sure their kids are growing up healthy. But it can be a challenge, especially with a picky eater or a child who prefers videogames to playing outdoors. The reality is that exhausted and overworked parents often end up making food choices based on convenience—serving the meal that's most appealing, not necessarily the most nutritious, or offering it in front of a TV. Such habits take a toll. Last year, the International Obesity Task Force estimated that more than 35 percent of American children ages 6 to 17 exceeded their ideal body weight, which can lead to serious long-term health problems like heart disease and diabetes, as well as depression and low self-esteem. Good health choices can also go a long way—not just toward physical health, but mental health and intellectual success, too. Researchers at the Medical College of Georgia found last year that kids who play vigorously for 20 to 40 minutes actually do better in school and are happier.

Want to make sure you're on track? NEWSWEEK asked some youth fitness experts for the six biggest mistakes to avoid if you want to keep your kids healthy and happy.

1. You Are Where You Eat. It actually does matter where your kids have their meals or snacks. If they eat in front of a TV or computer screen, studies show, the brain can be too distracted to know when the stomach is full, which can lead to overeating. Kid fitness guru Kimberly Malasky recommends sitting down at the kitchen table as a family, which is not only best to avoid overeating but offers a chance for real family time.

2. Too Much Screen Time. It's no secret that kids have loads more energy than their parents, but when they're allowed to play hours of videogames or watch TV for too long, it becomes harder for their bodies to adapt to doing something active. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that kids under age 2 have no screen time, and that kids older than 2 watch no more than 1 to 2 hours a day of TV. A study published last month in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine found that cutting kids' TV and computer time by half reduced the amount of food they ate and helped them lose weight. Researchers said they believed the drop was related to reduced exposure to ads for unhealthy fast foods and beverages. So encourage outdoor playtime with organized sports or tossing or kicking a ball around in a park or in the yard. By sprinkling exercise sessions into the family's weekend schedule, you're building the framework for an active lifestyle.

3. Eye Candy. Most kids test new foods with their eyes, meaning that if it doesn't look delicious, exciting, or as popular as what other kids are eating, they won't even give it a try. Fitness consultant Debi Pillarella suggests the "two bite, all right" technique. When introducing new nutritious foods, she tells her kids they don't have to eat the whole portion: just try two bites before giving a thumbs up or down. You may be surprised how many "yeahs" you'll get.

4. Junk in the Cupboard. Snacks are a must for any youngster coming home after a day at school. But after dropping their backpacks, they're likely to raid the cupboards first for something that's ready-made and satisfying. So be attentive to the kinds of foods you keep on hand. Left to their own devices, kids will often go for snacks that are high in sugar or salt, like candy or potato chips, if they're available. Instead, consider preparing healthier alternatives like slicing up cheese, carrots or strawberries or other fresh fruit, says Bryant. Pack them in Tupperware containers and place them prominently in the front of the cupboard or in the fridge, so that they're easy to find. And make sure the kids don't fill up on snacks and spoil their appetite for a good, healthy dinner.

5. Prepackaged Meals. Making your kids' lunch takes time, so picking up prepackaged lunch sets from the supermarket often seems like a welcome convenience. Bad idea, says Pillarella. They're usually filled with extremely high levels of sodium and fat, which not only affect kids' overall health, but how they perform during the rest of the school day. For busy parents without time to pack a healthy and complete lunch ever morning, Malasky suggests using time off during weekends to cut up fruit or prepare ingredients like sandwich meat, cut-up veggies or low-sugar snacks to assemble on a busy morning.

6. Not-So-Model Behavior. Kids need a positive role model to show them what it means to take care of their bodies, says Bryant, who has four kids of his own. As a parent, think about the kinds of foods you like to snack on and what you like to do with your spare time. If you encourage your kids to play outside, but then spend all afternoon on the couch watching TV, you're likely to send them a mixed message. It's important to practice what you preach. Your habits should reflect the lifestyle you'd like your children to have.