Does daycare make your kid fat? That's the headline-grabbing conclusion from researchers in Montreal, Canada, who claim to have discovered a "mysterious link" between children who attend daycare and childhood obesity.
According to the study of nearly 1,650 children in the Montreal area, those who attend daycare on a regular basis are 50 percent more likely to be overweight between ages 4 and 10, compared to those who stay at home with a parent. And it's not entirely clear to researchers why. "This difference cannot be explained by known risk factors such as socioeconomic status of the parents, breastfeeding, body mass index of the mother, or employment status of the mother," explains Dr. Marie-Claude Geoffroy, a researcher at the University of Montreal and CHU Sainte-Justine Hospital Research Centre, who led the study.
Well, we've got a hunch—or two. A 2009 study involving family daycares in Oregon found that while kids tended to eat healthy, many didn't get enough physical activity. According to researchers, 41 percent of providers said children ended up sitting for extended periods and 66 percent indicated the TV was on for most of the day.
What's more, just a few weeks ago, another study found that children with parents stressed out from work are also more likely to be overweight. Why? Because busy working parents, frazzled at the end of a long day, are less likely to put a healthy meal on the table—and more likely to feed their children fast food.
So, what's a parent to do?
First, assess. It's a pretty straightforward process to review what your child eats at daycare and the types of activities and play spaces offered to little ones in your child's age group. (Even older babies should be provided safe space for crawling and pulling up). If daycare doesn't measure up, you can either address the issue with your provider or—as difficult as it may be—move on to someplace.
And at home?
As Kara D'Angelo, a busy working mom from the Boston area, puts it, "Every day, I give thanks for daycare because I know my 2-year old is getting healthy, appropriate meals there. And then I cringe when we get home and it's take-out Chinese or pizza again. In my situation, I fully admit that I'm the bad influence with food."
With a little planning, the vicious cycle of take-out can be stopped. Tried-and-true tips for working parents include:
- Stock Up on Frozen Basics: For food that's ready faster than your favorite pizza place can deliver, just stick to such basics as bags of flash-frozen vegetable medleys and thin-sliced chicken breast, recommends French chef and nutritional therapist Alain Braux. A stir-fry using these ingredients can usually be managed in about 20 minutes—and cut into toddler-friendly chunks or pureed into baby food before serving. Soy sauce, sliced ginger, a sprinkle of sesame seeds, or a splash of orange juice can keep the flavors interesting.
- Precook Favorite Sides: Who has time to simmer brown rice for 40 minutes? Rather than miss out on this healthy grain, says Ling Wong, MS, CHHC, AADP, and a nutrition and wellness coach, the next time you do have time, boil up a big batch and then keep it in the fridge for a quick heat-and-serve side dish. (It will stay fresh for about a week). "You can even use some to make porridge for breakfast," Wong tells BabyZone.
- Keep Snacks Healthy: Fruit and cheese, a yogurt cup, rice crackers and almond butter, celery sticks with peanut butter and raisins, and whole grain crackers and a cup of milk. Are these easy-snacking favorites in your kitchen? They should be!
- Find Strength in Numbers: You know you're not alone. Team up with other working parents at wit's end when it comes to family meals, says Wong. "If you each prepare one dish in a big batch, and then trade dishes, you will walk away with a week's worth of dinner!"