As adults, we might be very focused on exactly how many steps we take each day, can count calories and fat grams in the food on our dinner plate, and how long we have to gut it out in spin class before we feel OK enjoying dessert. But the moment we hear a child do the same, all the numbers and words feel wrong.

My friend Jenelle, a busy working mother who proudly called herself a “health nut” and was on a mission to get her family on board, said her whole perspective on eating well and moving more changed as soon as she heard her young son mimicking her words.

“I cringed,” Jenelle confessed, “to hear him use the word calories.

But what happens if your kids need resources and support to eat healthier and maybe even lose weight? Is calorie tracking a good tool for children, even if it is hard to hear?

But isn’t it healthy for kids to be calorie-counters?

If your child needs to lose or manage their weight, it is likely that you are desperate for a solution. Although there are an abundance of weight-loss tools for adults, there are still very few solutions designed especially for kids and teens.

Counting calories is an effective weight loss tool for many adults, but it is NOT a healthy practice for kids. Calorie counting signifies “diet” which implies severe restriction – which is not sustainable, especially for kids.

The concern with kids and calorie counting is that it ignores the nutritional value of the food, which is critical for developing kids and teens. And let’s consider the reality: most kids fail at diets.

This is almost as tough to hear as it was for my friend Jenelle to hear her daughter use the word “calorie.”  Failing at anything hurts for kids, but failing at diets can cause children to have lowered confidence and self-esteem — the opposite of what we want for them if our hope is that they feel good in their bodies, are active and healthy.

Instead of counting calories

When empowering kids to make healthy choices, I teach kids a few simple tools. Kids are encouraged to track their food using the traffic-light system: red, yellow and green.

  • Green-light foods, or “go!” foods are primarily fruits and vegetables.
  • Yellow-light foods, or “slow down” foods, are healthy, but portion control is important. Some favorite yellow-light foods are whole grains, lean meats and low-fat dairy choices.
  • Red-light foods mean “stop and think.” These foods should be eaten in moderation, especially if weight management is a goal, and are generally high in fat and sugar. Processed snacks are often marketed directly to children and packaged purposefully for lunch boxes, so kids may need extra support in avoiding red-light foods.

Then add portion control

What kids eat is just as important as how much they eat.

To understand portion control, kids use their hand instead of a measuring cup. For example, one serving of pasta is the size of a child’s fist. Two fistfuls count as two yellow lights. A third fist-size of pasta is a red light, which is a sign of overeating.

If children and teens have age appropriate weight-management tools, like the traffic light system for choosing foods and using hand measurements to understand healthy portions, they won’t need to count a single calorie.

And if those same kids learn good eating habits when they are young, they will have some essentials for living a healthy, happier, longer life — all without any counting or cringing.

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Thea Runyan MPH contributor