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Happy Childhood Obesity Awareness Month: Good Health Starts with Your Cart


This September, in honor of National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month, the Inside Track is featuring a four-week challenge from the American Heart Association (AHA), the EmpowerMEnt Challenge. This week, the Inside Track interviewed Dr. Rachel Johnson, a Leader and nutrition expert at the University of Vermont, to get some more ideas on how families can empower their carts by filling them with healthy – and tasty – food.

As childhood obesity leaders nationwide try to attract broad interest to the movement this month during National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month, Dr. Rachel Johnson says one key is helping parents re-think their grocery carts.

“I think the best thing about this initiative is that it has some really clear and straightforward goals for people to think about,” Johnson said. Families taking the challenge are encouraged to replace a sugary dessert with a piece of fruit or to “eat the rainbow,” meaning fruits and vegetables of a wide variety of colors.

Week one of the EmpowerMEnt Challenge encourages families to “Empower Your Cart,” with fun activities ranging from a grocery store scavenger hunt to the “Cheap Eats Challenge,” complete with recipes.

Johnson is a longtime volunteer for the AHA, and recently chaired its Nutrition Committee. She has spent most of her career working in childhood nutrition research and advocacy, and sees an urgency in the need to improve kids’ health environment.

“We’re looking at the first generation where children may not live as long as their parents,” she said, and she is “passionate about turning this around.”

For parents seeking to increase their family’s consumption of fruits and vegetables, Johnson said a key goal is to “try to keep it positive … be a great role model so children see you eating” healthy food.

The Empower Your Cart portion of the challenge includes a tip sheet for picky eaters—who include grownups as well as kids. New foods–which can take 12 or 15 times for a young eater to develop a taste for–can go down easier, Johnson noted, if they’re served alongside something parents already know kids like.

“Say you’re offering kiwi or sweet potatoes for the first time, offer the new choice along with something familiar,” she suggested. Don’t turn the dinner table into a battleground, she added. This can set the effort up for failure; instead make trying new foods seem like a fun and stress-free adventure.

The goal is “making fruits and veggies the normative thing for your family,” she said. “You always have a veggie with the evening meal. That’s what a meal is like. The adults are eating it, the kids are eating it.” (And yes, that can be an adjustment for picky-eater adults, too.)

For snack time, “you want to make the fruits and veggies in the house convenient, easy to access,” she said. Don’t let a bunch of grapes languish in the refrigerator; put them on the counter in a pretty bowl. Younger kids are more likely to eat apples or oranges when they’re sliced. Raw veggies seem more appealing with a healthy dip served alongside, or apple slices with peanut butter or another nut spread.

And get the kids involved in shopping, cooking, and gardening at home. “I have a neighbor whose teens are responsible for one meal a week, shopping and cooking,” Johnson noted. “It’s just amazing what these kids are making! Depending on age, kids can get involved in a variety of ways.”

The goal of the four-week EmpowerMEnt Challenge is to give families the tools they need to make more healthy choices. “People can have the motivation, but you need to have the knowledge or the ability,” Johnson said. “This is giving families practical tips on how to live healthier lives.”

Donna Brutkoski authored this article.