As if keeping children fit and trim isn’t challenging enough, now you have dreams of dancing sugarplums to contend with.
But helping the tykes get through the holidays without developing bellies like bowls full of jelly will involve more than just keeping tabs on the sweets and treats of the season.
That’s because children’s physical fitness bottoms out this time of year, making it all the more difficult for them to burn off those extra Christmas cookie calories.
In fact, children burn only half as many calories in winter as they do in summer, says Dr. Cedric Bryant, chief exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise.
So how is a parent to handle December’s seemingly endless buffet of candy canes and gingerbread men?
Calories in, calories out
It’s all a matter of balance between calories in and calories out.
First, the calories going in. Health officials say the average child and teenage girl should eat about 2,200 calories a day. Teenage boys should get 2,800. But try not too obsess too much about the numbers.
It’s more important to set a positive tone about food, says Lisa Young, a professor of nutrition at New York University who specializes in diet counseling for children. Parents who demonize food sabotage their children’s efforts at healthy eating.
“You don’t want to set up a whole negative persona about food,” she said. “The whole issue of food becomes good or bad, and then the kid becomes good or bad because they ate the food.”
Young instead urges parents to set a tone of moderation that includes clear expectations. For example, tell the children it’s fine to indulge, but that they should eat only one dessert per holiday event.
And be sure to make it clear when indulgence is and is not allowed. Treats at parties and special events are fine, but discourage random sweets at home. In fact, don’t keep them in the house at all, even as decorations.
Don't encourage eating to excess
Young also suggests keeping children away from the empty calories of sugary drinks. Keep those calories for cookies, cakes and pies, which are more likely to leave the children satisfied.
When it comes to parties, avoid setting out platters of goodies, which encourage eating to excess, says Ellen Carroll, a spokeswoman and food development director at Cooking Light magazine.
Instead, give each child a party favor bag with individual portions of good and not-so-good treats. Alternatively, set out platters of healthy treats, but serve only individual portions of sweets.
Children also never should be sent to a party hungry. Give them a healthy snack before they leave the house.
Carroll says routine can help, too. The empty days of Christmas vacation can lend themselves to all-day snacking. Combat that by setting and sticking to a schedule of meals and snacks.
Even with these precautions, it’s best to accept that children will eat more than normal during the coming weeks. That brings us to how to handle — and increase — the number of calories going out.
Put focus on activities
Rather than obsess over every morsel your child eats, especially if you’ve made reasonable efforts to foster moderation, encourage more physical activity to burn up those extra calories.
Rule No. 1: Never use food as the focus of any children’s event. Instead of a pizza party, have a bowling or craft party. That puts the focus on activity, not edibles.
Rule No. 2: Set the right example. If you expect your children to be active, you’ll need to be active, too.
“We as parents tend to look at it as little down time,” said Bryant. “We’re just as guilty as the children of sitting in front of the television.”
Any activity, from playing Simon Says to building pillow forts in the living room, counts in terms of burning calories.
Even activities that normally quash fitness can be put to good use, including video games. Some games now have motion-sensing pads that children must move around on in order to play the game.
Activity also can be meaningful. Carroll suggests bringing children to a homeless shelter or other charitable event where they can help out and start holiday traditions that aren’t food-centered.
“Kids are so full of energy this time of year that you’ve got to do something to redirect that energy to take some of the emphasis off the holiday treats,” she said.