On the Right Track

The Benefits of Writing Down What Your Family Eats

Tracking your family's daily intake is one of the greatest tools you have when it comes to judging whether your family is eating nutritionally. With childhood obesity on the rise and so many overweight adults, it's important to know what we're putting in our mouths.

For Colleen Kessler, mother of one from Twinsburg, Ohio, tracking her family's nutrition began during a difficult pregnancy and she continued the habit after her baby was born. "When my son was born, I nursed and wanted to make sure he got the best possible nutrition since it was something I could totally shape," Kessler says. "I knew that if I could get him off to a good start, I would be building habits that would last him a lifetime."

Kessler keeps track of her son's nutrition by packing all of his food while in daycare and having his daycare provider track it as well. "His babysitter writes it in a journal," Kessler says. "She records what he ate, when and how much."

By tracking her family's diet, Kessler has a better idea of what her family is actually eating and when. Sometimes the results are surprising. Kessler has found that she and her husband tend to be instant-gratification eaters. "When we're hungry, we like something that can be eaten fast," Kessler says. "If there are cut-up fruits, vegetables and cheese cubes in the refrigerator, we'll snack on those instead of chips and cookies."

Getting on the Right Track

Colleen A. Thompson, a registered dietitian and author of the book, Overcoming Childhood Obesity (Bull Publishing, 2004), believes that tracking your family's eating habits is a significant step in promoting healthy eating. "Often parents assume the child is eating well and may not realize this is not the case," Thompson says. "It's important to assess the nutritional status of all family members periodically to give you a sense of where they are now and what improvements may need to be made to improve overall health."

When you track your family's diet, you quickly become aware of possible issues, such as low fruit and vegetable intake or excess sugar. You will also have a better idea of what changes need to be made in order to correct the problem. Thompson states that it is far easier to track the diets of younger children than older children because the older the child the more food they eat away from the home. "The major dietary concerns for most children today are low intakes of fruits and vegetables, low intake of calcium, low intake of whole grains and excessive intake of sugar, particularly from sweetened beverages," Thompson says. "I would recommend looking carefully at overall diets of children with an emphasis on those items."

Surprising Results

The Brown Family from Beachwood, N.J., has made some surprising discoveries since they began writing down what their family eats. "I now know they eat a lot more junk than I thought they did!" says Patti Brown of her four children. "I have also found that school lunches aren't as nutritious as I thought they were and that my family barely gets two or three servings of fruits or vegetables daily. My children rarely ever eat fruits or vegetables at school."

Tracking her family's eating habits has motivated Brown to make some dietary changes. She now makes a conscious effort to ensure that their breakfasts and afternoon snacks are healthy and though she has found that keeping track of everyone's daily intake can be a bit time consuming, it is worth it – as long as the information is put to good use. "We can talk about it and recite our food intake daily, but it takes a long time to institute changes into dietary routines – for all of us, not just the kids," Brown says.

On the Record

There are several different ways you can track your family's diet. One way is with a food journal. You can ask each person at the dinner table what they ate during the day and make notes of it in the journal. If your children are older you can also put a sheet of paper on the refrigerator and they can check off how many fruits and vegetables they have eaten or how many glasses of milk they have had.

After you have tracked your family's diet for a week or so, you can take the information and use it to form goals that are specific to each person. For instance, some children are naturally more drawn to fruits and vegetables than others, but perhaps they are not getting enough protein. You may have a child that is underweight and needs more milk in her diet. You can then use tracking to motivate everyone to meet their dietary goals.

Molly Kimball, a registered dietitian and sports and lifestyle nutritionist for the Elmwood Fitness Center in New Orleans, La., believes that while keeping track of our family's dietary input is one of the most positive ways we can impact our family's health, we shouldn't go overboard on how we implement changes. "I think it's important for parents to focus on eating healthfully, yet still realize that their kids are just that – kids," Kimball says. "Some parents get carried away and ban all types of 'junk' foods from the house – so there's not a cookie, chip or ice cream to be found. I've found this often leads to kids viewing foods as 'good' and 'bad' and also leads to kids overindulging in their favorite treats when they're away from home."

Kimball believes that it is oftentimes the parents' good intentions that can create even worse problems for the child by creating an all-or-nothing mentality. "I think it's essential that parents still fit these 'fun' foods in occasionally, not as a reward, but just 'because,'" she says. "So every once in a while, go out for ice cream (not just frozen yogurt!) or share popcorn at the movies."

Just remember to keep track of it!

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