With childhood obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure on the rise in our society, it’s more important than ever for parents to take responsibility early on for getting their youngsters on the right track for good health. 

While preparing and eating the right foods is essential—an issue that some critics claim is an expensive proposition and disadvantages poorer families—experts recommend instilling healthy values and modeling healthy behaviors when it comes to food and exercise. Financially, the practice comes without cost, but packs a positive wallop for your child’s physical and mental health, experts claim.

“As parents, we need to take responsibility,” says Jake Steinfeld, fitness expert and chairman of the National Foundation for Governor’s Fitness Councils. A self proclaimed “fat kid with a bad stutter,” Steinfeld says his life changed at 13 when his dad bought him weights. With the weights and working out came self-esteem.

Steinfeld’s tenacity has translated into success—chairman and CEO of Body by Jake Global, author, creator of the web platform FitOrbit, founder of FitTV and creator of Major League Lacrosse.

Serving under California Governors Jerry Brown (current) and Arnold Schwarzenegger, he raised money to put fitness centers in public schools as chairman of the California Governor’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. Now, as chairman of the National Foundation for Governor’s Fitness Councils, he’s using the model he developed in California to put fitness centers nationwide in schools.

This mission is monumental, but the ideas that seed the endeavor can be mirrored by parents at home.

The Governor’s Challenge, a component of the California program, requires youngsters to be active for 30 to 60 minutes a day, three days a week for a month.

Just by moving the 30 to 60 minutes every other day for a month, a youngster will feel good about him or herself, says Steinfeld. And the program is catching on:  In 2006, the first year of the Challenge, there were 10,000 participants.  In 2011 there were 1.4 million.

“It’s a gift to give children time to play, be active and have fun,” says Dr. Mollie Grow, a pediatrician and assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington and member of Actively Changing Together (ACT). “Competition can create a huge downward spiral if children feel they are not competing effectively,”

ACT works to help families develop a positive approach to childhood health. “Our focus is not weight loss but rather working on family behaviors to help children achieve healthy lifestyles,” Grow says. Children feel happy when they don’t feel pushed, overly directed about an activity or penalized, she adds.

It’s a quality of life issue, according to Grow, not limited to weight but about how people feel about themselves. “When children don’t have the chance to get exposure to good health habits at a young age, they face a lot of uphill battles.”  But when parents role model healthy behaviors, children are enabled to embark “on a lifelong journey” of good health.

Tips for Parents to Create a Health Mindset and Environment

Make meal time together time. Don’t skip meals or avoid family mealtime. Sit down and eat breakfast and dinner with your children. It’s the perfect opportunity to discuss what happened at school and any problems or issues, as well as provide a good model of healthy and nutritional eating.

Demonstrate and instill moderation. If your youngsters like food high in sugar or fat, don’t totally restrict them, but limit them to once a week, as Steinfeld does, or to very small quantities once a day.

Grow says parsing of certain foods is best accomplished in a structured environment with a nutritionist or health professional to avoid over-restriction or backlash from youngsters like binging, hoarding or eating in secret.

Quit the clean-plate club. Let kids stop eating when they feel they’ve had enough. Though lots of parents grew up under the clean-plate rule, the approach doesn’t help kids listen to their own bodies when they feel full. Responding to a feeling of fullness, means youngsters will be less likely to overeat.

Make your children part of meal planning and preparation. Give kids a say in what and how much they want to eat from the foods you’re serving. Activities like finding recipes and chopping vegetables engages them and has the fringe benefit of teaching them kitchen safety and preparation skills. 

Go frozen. Quality frozen foods are typically cheaper than fresh items, last longer and can be bought in bulk.  

Limit TV and computer time. Too much time in front of the TV or PC cuts into family quality time and keeps kids sedentary. Plan fun indoor and outdoor activities for nights and weekends—they will get the family moving together and can serve as motivation for kids to get their homework done earlier. The activities don’t have to be major; Grow suggests a simple family walk following dinnertime. Make your children part of the program planning so they can help come up with engaging activities.

Reward the success of everyday accomplishments. Reinforce everyday healthy-living accomplishments. This provides hope, says Steinfeld. “And, kids need more hope.”