Sunday, April 25, 2010

Red Light Green Light

So here is the first component of our program. In our family we call it "red lights." We hoped that this system might help us keep track of what we were eating and help the girls think about their choices with a healthy standard in mind. In the past three weeks it has done that, and much, much more.

First, the nuts and bolts. Red lights refer to the kinds of foods that you want to eat only a little bit, as a treat. For us this is mainly desserts; we have boiled it down to foods that are high in sugar and or white flour. Lots of chemical additives also make foods a red-light in our family. We don't worry much about fat content because carbs seem to create the greatest challenges, and because foods high in sugar and white flour seem to almost always come up short on nutritional value. The right kinds of fats in moderate amounts are good for kids. But, the system can be fine tuned to your family's preferences and challenges around regulating unhealthy choices.

When we decided to try this, we sat the girls down and told them we wanted to work on making our family healthier, and we wanted to talk with them about different types of food. We introduced the simple categorization scheme of green-light, yellow-light, and red-light foods.

Green-light foods, we explained, are super healthy foods that you can always have when you are hungry. We started to list them and the girls jumped in: "apples! carrots! chicken! Cheese sticks! edamame! salad!". We added nuts, other kinds of meats and dairy products, all fruits and veggies. They got it and, much to our surprise, we had their attention.

Yellow-light foods, we continued, are the kinds of foods that kids tend to love but that are not really very healthy, like, again they jumped in: "white bread! macaroni and cheese! french fries!" Yes, we agreed. Then they started to ask questions. What about pizza? yellow. What about yogurt from the yogurt shop, with toppings? Yellow or red, depending on toppings and serving size. Plain yogurt at home with berries and honey is green, as long as honey is used carefully. Whole wheat pasta with pesto or tomato sauce is green. Yellow lights, we explained, are things that are ok to eat. You can have them, sometimes, but they are better in combination with other, healthier things. In short, they shouldn't be mostly what you eat.

Finally, the red lights. Their eyes get big. These are foods that everyone (in our family) loves, but they just aren't that good for you, so you really only want to eat a little bit, once in a while. They have too much sugar, way more than your body needs. So they are bad for your teeth? Yep. Sometimes they have chemicals, colors, stuff your body doesn't need or like at all. They smile knowingly: "candy! doughnuts! birthday cake! sugary-cereal!" We ask how many red lights they think they should have in a week, in order to be healthy. They suggest five (phew!), and we run with it.

Ok, we said. We are going to start counting our red lights, and make sure we only have five per week. Every time we have a red light, you put a red glass bead (thanks Mona) into a cup with your name on it (see photo). When you get to five, that's it for the week. On Sunday we will put the beads back and start again.

We started using red lights three weeks ago. A few friends I have told have also tried it, and we have all been amazed. Our kids are tracking what they are eating, and they are self regulating. They are not resistant, to the contrary, they are like little zealots. It is not a chore, it is a game. I am no longer the food police in my household. There is no haggling about food. Now, when my girls ask "Can we go out for ice cream?", I say, what do you think? how many red lights do you have? how many days till the end of the week? and they decide whether to choose ice cream at that moment, or not. When they ask, is this a red light? I say, I don't know, what's in it? They read labels, looking for sugar content, and they have started to notice differences in vitamin content, protein, fats, etc. Recently I pointed out the differences in length of ingredient lists. When lists are very long, I said, the food often has chemicals and other unhealthy stuff in it. That moves the food out of the green light category. They are thinking about portions: how many gobstoppers do you have to eat to get a red light? One is probably yellow, but a handful is red. They are taking pride in their healthy choices, because they are making them themselves, and they are motivated to comply with the red-light standard, because they chose it. I am sure it helps that Jim and I are also using the same standards.

Another HUGE benefit for us has been eliminating the coordination losses that have almost certainly contributed to some of the challenges we are currently facing. Both JIm and I work outside the home, so we have had caregivers for the past 9 years. All have acted very responsibly with the girls' diet, providing healthy choices 99% of the time, and all almost certainly have wanted to indulge the girls once in a while. It occurred to me the other day that when five adults each want to indulge the girls, say, once a week, without having any idea what other adults have offered them the day before, there are a lot of excess red lights flying around. Especially taking into account playdates, birthday parties and holidays. Now, all we have to do is count, and everyone is using the same tracking system.

So that is the basic outline. So far so good. The girls were in a wedding last night. They declined an invitation to get ice cream on Friday because they wanted wedding cake on Saturday. I am beginning to exhale.

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