Help your child lose weight: The 7-step plan for parents

Help your child lose weight: The 7-step plan for parents

Dr. Stan (Stan Cohen MD)

Is a pediatric gastroenterologist at the Children’s Center for Digestive Health Care / GI Care for Kids, whose books on nutrition for parents led him to start Nutrition4Kids with his co-founders.

Has anyone told you your child needs to lose weight? Or not gain another pound? Maybe you see it for yourself. Perhaps you've noticed reduced activity levels. Or maybe it's already causing diabetes, heart disease, or high blood pressure?

We want to help. You probably have tried. Maybe your efforts worked for a little while. They might not have worked at all. Our program is different, as you'll see, and it shouldn't cost you a penny. 

Is Our Action Plan Effective? 

You'll have to be the one to judge. But we know a few things. 

  • You have to make it part of your family's healthy habits. If everybody eats healthier, it will be easier for Johnny or Judy. And if the plan just focuses on Johnny or Judy, it may help him lose weight but it may not make him feel better inside.
  • You have to set realistic goals—at least in the beginning. If you set them too high, it's easy to give up. We recommend 5% of the body weight at the start. (For someone who weighs 180 pounds, that would be 8 pounds). And studies have shown, that he or she starts to benefit when his or her weight comes down just 5% to 10%. Sometimes, we'll start with just losing 5 pounds so you can see how simple the plan is. You can always accomplish one goal and move to the next.  
  • You have to know that losing weight takes time. It doesn't happen overnight. But it can happen. And some of the benefits begin even before you've reached your targets. Sometimes the first step for a child isn't to lose weight but to not gain any for a month or more. 
  • You'll have to take a careful look at what you are doing now. We'll help you change for the better. But like any program, you'll have to keep those changes in mind, so you don't slip back to old, unneeded habits.    
  • You have to be ready to change. True. You both have to be ready. If Johnny or Judy is going to fight your efforts, you may have to work with him or her to see how important this is. 
  • We want that change to last forever. We're not going to put you on a diet to help your child lose weight so that it comes right back on as soon as the diet stops. You'll want to adopt our program as the way to live. 

Start by Asking Yourself These Questions

Does your child need or want to lose weight? Have you been told that he or she is heavy or has a high BMI or a fatty liver? 

If yes, this program is for you. If not, it still may help prevent further problems later. 

Does your child get teased or called names because of his or her size? Can he or she participate in sports along with others his or her age-because of his or her size?

If yes to the first question or no to the second, then you have further reason to get involved. And it also can provide some motivation for your child. 

Can you see other ways he or she might benefit? Do you think he or she might be happier? 

If yes, you might be able to talk to him or her about the benefits to encourage him or her further.

Would you like to lose a few pounds or more? Do you have high blood pressure, heart disease or type II diabetes? 

If so, we would like you to participate too. You are an important role model. Your involvement will help your child and it will help both of you create a healthier lifestyle if you stay with it.   

Is there anyone else in the house who might benefit?

If so, a family discussion might get everyone to work with you on our Action Plan.

Step #1: Take Stock

Write down everything your child and you ate for the past 3 days. The foods, the drinks, the meals, the snacks, the treats. Make sure you get it all. 

Once you're done, take a look. Did the list include any of the following:

  • Large portions
  • Fried food
  • More than one fast food meal
  • More than one carb (examples, bread, pasta, pizza, rice) at a meal
  • Sugary drinks
  • Sweet desserts
  • Snacks that weren't fruits or vegetables
  • Snacks or meals while watching television or playing on screens

For more information and questions, you might want to look at our calorie counter for help.

Make a list of your child's and your activities for those same 3 days:

  • Did it include physical activity? Was it 1 hour or longer each day?

If so, fantastic—keep going, and consider more physical activity together if it wasn't on the list.

  • Did your child or you have more than an hour of watching television or screen time playing games? On the weekend, is there more than 2 hours each day? 

Who makes decisions about where to eat? What's being served? What to buy at the supermarket?

 I'm assuming it's you or another adult most of the time. The point is to realize the power you have. 

  • You are the one buying healthy or unhealthy snacks and meals. 
  • You are the one pulling into a fast food place. 
  • You are the one that can require healthy choices there. 

Step #2: Set Your Goals

Now that you've seen the present picture, you need to show it to your child and decide how you want to move into the future. Help them find one or more areas to work on. They'll make more of an effort if they help to choose. 


  • No weight gain in a month
  • Weighing ____ pounds less (do not go higher than 5 pounds for the first goal—you can continue to add later).
  • Weighing  5 % less in ___ months (2 to 3 is a minimum).
  • Weighing 10% less in ___ months (4 is a minimum).

Healthier Eating

  • Healthier snacks
  • Foods to eliminate or cut down 
    • Fried food
    • Junk food
    • Creamy or buttery foods
    • High calorie desserts
    • Sugary beverages
  • Eating snacks in the kitchen or by pouring into a small bowl when doing activities
  • Smaller servings
  • Number of servings – Best rule: the only seconds are vegetables (does not include potatoes) 
  • Substitutes for sugary beverages
  • Healthier restaurant choices


  • More physical activity:  Increasing to ___ hours per day or week doing ____________
  • Less screen time: Limiting to ___ minutes / hours per day or week (not including homework)
  • Activities together

Step #3: Understand What Gets in the Way

Pretty simple—except that there are those habits and barriers that get in that can get in the way. You want to stay on your new diet and exercise routine, but there's a soda in the vending machine right there in front of you and it triggered this call of hunger. Even though the machine also has bottled water, that soda is awfully tempting. So you have to be committed. 

So, make a list of those triggers and the habits you may want to consider changing. You might include the following:

  • School vending machines
  • After school snacks
  • Addicted to chips and treats
  • Going out to eat with friends
  • Thirsty after sports practice
  • Love those video games and television, and love to have chips while playing
  • Hard to find someone to play with or to find something else to do
  • Pizza parties, birthday parties with friends
  • Restaurants put all that bread on the table or only serve fried food
  • Goes to Grandma's after school 
  • Sees what father or brother or sister does 
  • Other caretakers don't listen and / or won't help 
  • Not safe to play outside
  • So much homework, hard to find the time
  • Other triggers

Now make a separate column, where you put how you want to deal with each one of these issues. You might not want to do anything about the birthday parties, because you're afraid it will make your child seem different. But that doesn't mean you aren't going to manage the video games and snacks. You can even make this into a game of strategy (You are command central, and your son is on a mission). 

Step #4: Be a Role Model

You are almost ready to start. What you have to do is recognize your role, where you are going to focus and what your own barriers might be. It may be time, other responsibilities. If so, look at who can help and how you might change your own patterns and habits. Remember, you're the role model. And remember too that we can help. Go to our other blogs and articles on 

Step #5: Review Your Plan with Everyone

Ask everyone how they are going to start:

  • What healthier foods do they want you to buy?
  • What foods are you going to eliminate?
  • What active activities do they want to do? How often? For how long?
  • What's the plan going to be for TV and screens? How long is allowed?
  • What's the family's reward for staying with the plan?  

Note that not everybody is going to want the same things. That's fine. They can follow their own area of the plan.  And it's fine too if you just want to start by focusing on 1 area. 

Step 6: Begin with One Small Step

Begin the changes, whether it's diet, more exercise or just being aware of what you're doing or all of those and more. Make sure everyone in the household is willing to make this work together.  See how well it's going after a few days, a week, a few weeks. and decide if there are more barriers and triggers you didn't realize before. Adjust for those, and stay with it. This takes a while to get used to.

There may be some cheating. Some intentional and some because they aren't as focused on the success or the steps as you are. Try to ignore that and focus on whatever success everyone achieves. You can give individual awards—make sure they're not food related. A toy to play outside, a movie or favorite outing, even points on a chart or small amounts of money with the promise of more if they stick with it.  

Step #7: Monitor and Reward 

This is true test: how's it working out? Are your child and you following the diet, the exercise program? Don't expect a weight change for weeks. So don't try to use the scales every day. We all go up and down, somewhat. 

The better way is to monitor weekly or every other week. Review your success with a discussion and a weight check, at home or your doctor's office.  And reward yourselves—but not with food. Maybe a day together somewhere or time at a playground. Adjust to your child's interest. There are innumerable choices. We'd love to know how you're doing (send emails and photos to ).

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