We spend 18 years teaching our children how to walk, talk, read and drive, but many of us drop the ball when it comes to teaching them how to eat right.

According to the American Obesity Association, today an alarming 15.5 percent of children between the ages of six and 11 are obese and well on their way to lives marred by heart disease and other preventable conditions. According to pediatric health experts, the buck stops with parents.

"Parents are the gatekeepers and the role models for their children's eating and exercise habits," says Marjorie Milici, M.D., pediatrician on the medical staff at Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas. "Chronic diseases, such as obesity, heart disease and cancer, which take decades to develop, have their roots in childhood, when exercise and eating behaviors are being learned," adds Dr. Milici.

It is never to soon for children to start learning about proper nutrition and exercise. The American Heart Association says that children age 2 and older should eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables daily, as well as a variety of other foods low in saturated fat and cholesterol. Exercise early in life is another key to long-term health.

"It's up to parents to help their children control the factors that they can, such as diet and exercise," says Dr. Milici. "Children should get at least 30 minutes of exercise five days a week. Lack of exercise prevents the breakdown of bad cholesterol in our bodies. Combined with a high-fat diet, it can lead to health problems such as elevated cholesterol levels, heart disease and diabetes when children are older."

Use the Quick Guide below and try to reduce the Too Much, Too Manys and increase the foods and behaviors that are Not-Enoughs.

A Quick Guide for Parents

Too Much, Too Manys
  • sitting in front of the TV, computer or electronic game device
  • busy time
  • calories from junk food
  • sweet drinks
  • real exercise
  • rest; children tend to eat more when bored or overtired
  • fiber, vitamin C, calcium, iron
  • low-fat dairy products