How ‘crunch time’ between school and sleep shapes kids’ health
Feb. 25, 2013, NPR [Shots Blog]
It’s an important question for American families and the nation as a whole: Why do so many kids weigh too much?
There are recent hints the epidemic may be abating slightly. Still, one in every three American kids is overweight or obese.
To understand why, NPR conducted a poll with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health. It focuses on what happens in American households during the hours between school and bedtime.
This is crunch time for most families — when crucial everyday decisions get made about food and exercise.
Our poll used a unique design to get at what is actually happening in the life of a “target child” in each household. We supplemented their responses with more than 800 that came in when we asked parents, through NPR’s Facebook page, to describe their own “crunch times.”
The most striking finding is that U.S. parents “get it.”
When we asked a parent or other principal caregiver in our poll how important it is that their child eats and exercises in a way to maintain a healthy weight, more than nine in 10 said it was important — and most said it was “very important.”
But all too often, there’s a disconnect. Despite good intentions, it’s not happening.
More than half of children ate or drank something during the “crunch time” window that can lead to unhealthy weight gain, as perceived by their parents. And more than a quarter of children did not get enough exercise, their parents say.
“It’s hard enough to get dinner on the table while trying to help them with homework,” says Paige Pavlik of Raleigh, N.C. “Once we do everything, there is absolutely no time to go outside and take a walk or get any exercise. It’s simply come in, eat, sit down, do homework, go to bed.”
The relentlessness of it makes her emotional. Pavlik starts to cry as she talked about her family’s daily crunch time. “It’s really hard,” she says. “This isn’t how I thought family life was going to be.”
Nearly half the parents in our poll say it’s difficult to make sure their child eats healthy.
Lori Bishop of Lexington, Ky., says she tries to excel as a parent and as a full-time laboratory manager. But she ends up feeling mediocre at both.
Both she and her husband have stressful jobs, she says, and often feel exhausted at the end of the workday. “But you gotta go right to work in the kitchen,” Bishop says. “And while I would love to prepare a well-balanced meal each evening … it doesn’t happen.”
She says dinner at the Bishops’ house is often pre-packaged meals — “things that are frozen that you can heat up like frozen pizza, frozen chicken nuggets.”
In three-quarters of the households polled, most of the family ate dinner together the previous evening. And of those, most said the “target” child’s dinner was prepared at home with fresh ingredients.
But about a third of children who eat at home with their families are like Lori Bishop’s kids — they end up relying on pre-packaged, frozen, or take-out food.
And nearly half of those in our poll say it’s difficult for families to eat together on a daily basis.
Adam Jacobs’ family in Mesa, Ariz., is a case in point. He and his wife have long commutes to work. “My wife and I don’t even get to talk about our days,” he says. “If I have something to tell her, I literally put it on my smart phone to remind me.”
Their two boys, aged 14 and 10, usually have after-school activities. On one recent evening, Jacobs tried to rustle up dinner for himself and his older son.
“I was at home at 7:30 and it was ready by 8:30,” he says. “And by that time, my wife and younger boy weren’t even home yet and my older son had already eaten … so it wound up just being another solo deal.”
It’s not just time that’s in short supply. Among the parents we talked to who say it’s difficult to prepare fresh foods, money was also a factor.