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Fueling Up!

What makes our body “get up and go” every day? Just like gas fuels our car, the calories we get from food fuel our bodies. Have you ever tried to explain how this works to your child? Let’s start with a definition of a calorie. A calorie is a unit of energy or heat which approximates the energy needed to increase the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1° Celsius. In simpler terms, a calorie is the energy we receive from food.

A whopping 20% of energy we consume goes directly to our brain to maintain all of the functions it performs. Another large percentage is used by our body to maintain the basic functions of our tissues, organs, and body temperature. Even while we sleep we use energy to carry out these functions. It is vital for us to fuel our bodies well so we have the energy to think, play, and work.

It is fun to talk with your child about fuel of all types and to get them thinking about fueling their own bodies. Ask your child to help you name all of the things that run on fuel. Get them to think about fuel for cars, planes, boats, computers and think about horses, birds and even their own tricycle or bicycle. How does energy or fuel make things go?

Share this fun Sesame Street “Food and Energy” video to get the dialogue started.

There is a balancing act that takes place when it comes to maintaining the proper energy for our bodies. Our age, weight, activity level, and metabolism contributes to our caloric needs. For each of us to maintain a healthy energy balance, our calories IN should equal our calories OUT.

The Write it Down! Daily Food and Activity Log (PDF) is a great activity to do with your child to help them connect their calories IN to their calories OUT. A food and activity diary is a helpful way to monitor your typical food choices and activity routine. Ask each person in your family to participate in a three day log of their own. It is helpful to do several days' worth of logs to get a better picture of your diet and activity. Write down everything you eat and drink and include portion sizes and calorie consumption too.

If you have a young child, assist them by talking through their meal and getting them to point out what they ate. You can ask questions such as:

  • Did you have a small or a large bowl of cereal this morning?
  • How many carrots (or apples or cookies, etc.) did you eat?
  • What food groups did you have at lunch?

Here are some other helpful hints to assist you in completing the portion size column on your log:

  • Use measuring cups to figure out how much milk (or other beverage) you poured. 
  • Use measuring spoons when you use salad dressing, peanut butter, or other condiments.
  • Don’t have measuring cups? Use your hand as a guide. An average woman’s fist - or a baseball - is about the size of one cup. That means that 1/2 cup of cereal looks like 1/2 a baseball!

Another activity to try is to Calculate those Calories (PDF). Lots of math skills go into understanding how many calories we consume. Have your older children practice their math skills by calculating the calories they ate for breakfast using the food labels. You can also compare what type of activity it would take to burn off those calories. This chart tells you the time an activity would take to burn off calories. You can find out things like - how long would it take for 4 year old basketball player to burn off 150 calories from a soda?

Remember to stay energized by fueling up on good, healthy foods that are full of the vitamins and nutrients that our bodies need.

For more healthy food tips check out these resources:

  • Find great articles, recipes and games at PBS Parents
  • zisboombah an interactive meal planning site for parents and teachers
  • First Lady, Michelle Obama has started Let’s Move - a program to raise healthier kids
  • Helpful tips for healthy food choices from the US Department of Agriculture
  • Get involved in Fuel Up to Play 60, a great in-school nutrition and physical activity program and play a nutrition/fuel game

Article by: Rachel Bulifant, R.D., Community Dietitian, Bon Secours Richmond Health System

Photo by: Sheri Chen