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Web-Based Tools Make Healthy Eating Fun for Families

By Susan A. Knight

We’re all familiar with the idealized image of a happy family sitting at the dinner table, leisurely enjoying a healthy home-cooked meal, while everyone takes a moment to share about their day. The reality, however, often looks entirely different. From tight schedules to picky eaters, the challenges around meal planning, and more broadly around healthy eating in general, are as unique and varied as the families they affect.

Fortunately, a wide range of web-based resources is available to support families with meal planning and making healthy food choices. Many of these tools are designed to be engaging and accessible to children in particular, emphasizing how healthy eating can be fun and enjoyable. Common characteristics include a mix of interactive features, age-appropriate games, animation, and audio, all of which serves to enrich and support the learning experience in a fun way.

Beyond the Fun Factor
Beyond the fun factor provided by all of the games and activities, these online tools are also useful for the wealth of nutrition information they make readily available to busy parents and families. The content within these online activity sites is typically provided and/or vetted by dietitians, nutritionists, and other health care professionals. A fun interface with lots of animation and colorful cartoon figures allows for the delivery of content that is evidence based and reliable. As a result, users come away more knowledgeable and better equipped to make healthy choices.

These tools, with their kid-friendly approach, are an excellent way to ease the pressure and stress that so often accompanies parents’ attempts to foster healthier eating habits within the family. When children are genuinely interested, having fun, and learning about food in a way that appeals to them and speaks to them at their own level, they’re far more likely to be motivated to make healthier choices. This leads to a very different dynamic compared with that of exasperated parents trying to coax and cajole their children into eating certain foods.

Helping Children Form Positive Food Associations
Making healthy eating a fun, positive experience for children is critical in helping them to form positive food associations. When children are being pushed, bribed, or nagged into eating certain foods, they’re far more likely to form a negative association with those foods. These negative associations can linger well into adulthood and have a long-term impact on eating habits.

Nourish Interactive, a website that offers nutrition games for children and related information for parents and health educators, offers the following example of how a negative food association might be made: “If children get in trouble for not eating vegetables, they may form an association with ‘vegetables’ and ‘getting in trouble.’ Later on, subconsciously, they may shy away from vegetables because they are remembering unhappy memories with that food.”

One of many online resources committed to helping children form positive associations with healthy foods, Nourish Interactive offers a variety of tips for parents to help them create a positive and happy eating experience with their children.

The site also provides recipes and practical steps to assist parents with food preparation (e.g., school lunches), along with a variety of printable activity worksheets for children that help to present healthy food choices in a positive light. The site’s most popular printable is a worksheet that presents familiar fast food items along with healthier options like fresh fruits and vegetables; the user is instructed to circle the foods that will supercharge the brain for learning. This type of exercise is extremely powerful, as it allows children to determine what constitutes a healthy food choice based on what best serves their own self-interest (in this case, helping them to learn and do well in class).

Equipping Children to Make Their Own Informed Decisions
Another common feature of these resources is that they go far beyond simply presenting a list of “good” and “bad” foods. Instead, they delve into the nutritional value of each food. They go beyond a breakdown of the major food groups (e.g., proteins, carbohydrates, and dairy) and identify the actual vitamins and minerals contained in foods. This allows children to make their own informed decisions based on sound reasoning, rather than just obeying a set of food rules that have been handed to them. Children come away better equipped to make an informed decision as to why one particular food might be a preferable choice over another.

Addressing Childhood Obesity
One of the issues that can arise from prolonged unhealthy eating is obesity, a health concern for children as well as adults. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the percentage of children with obesity in the United States has more than tripled since the 1970s, putting them at higher risk for other chronic health conditions and diseases, such as asthma, sleep apnea, bone and joint problems, and type 2 diabetes.

While several factors are known to contribute to obesity, unhealthy eating patterns and a lack of physical activity play a central role. There’s no question that physical activity levels have decreased significantly in recent decades, with children spending much of their time engaged in sedentary activities such as watching TV or playing games on electronic devices.

Healthy eating and physical activity go hand in hand when it comes to overall health, and many online resources address this connection directly. For instance, at the aforementioned Nourish Interactive site, children are prompted to take a break after spending 20 minutes on the computer in order to be physically active.

Eat & Move-O-Matic, a free mobile phone app in this arena, also addresses the food-exercise connection directly. Developed by the Learning Games Lab at New Mexico State University, the app is geared towards children aged 9 to 11. It allows users to compare the caloric content of the foods they eat with the amount of exercise required to burn those calories. It also provides alternative food options to help encourage healthier choices.

Based on the latest research, we know there’s much more to the weight management equation than the standard “calories in/calories out” approach. However, an app like Eat & Move-O-Matic still has the potential to be beneficial. Presenting information regarding calorie consumption and expenditure in a format that can readily be accessed via iPad or iPhone allows users to reference it quickly and easily, anywhere, at any time. Furthermore, providing this information reinforces the important concept that what we eat and how active we are (or aren’t) has an impact.

Resources and Support for Families in Low-Income Communities
With respect to childhood obesity rates, one of the findings has been that this increase is not evenly spread out across the population. Numerous studies have indicated that childhood obesity rates tend to be higher in low-income communities. While this can be attributed to many factors, a key factor is the community environment itself. Oftentimes, these communities fail to support healthy eating and physical activity in concrete, practical ways. For instance, a lack of places for children to play outside can lead to decreased activity levels. And in “food deserts”—areas where supermarkets are scarce or otherwise difficult to access—there’s a good chance that families will wind up consuming low-nutrition foods and/or unhealthy fast food on a frequent basis.

Web-based nutrition games and meal planning websites don’t resolve these broader socioeconomic issues. However, they do provide a means for families to access resources and support in a way that is fun and accessible, free of charge. These resources can open the door for children and families to acquire valuable nutritional information. While challenges may still remain due to the community environment, the knowledge gained from these online resources allows for better choices to be made within the confines of that environment.

Given how much time everyone is spending online, it makes sense to reach out to families with these types of web-based resources. If children can be encouraged to adopt healthy eating habits early on, there’s a good chance those habits will remain with them into adulthood. If making healthy food choices is viewed as a fun and empowering process, as opposed to a stressful and restrictive one, all family members are far more likely to embrace that process happily and willingly.

— Susan A. Knight works with organizations in the social services sector to help them get the most out of their client management software.