Today’s kids are surrounded by food that lacks the nutrients needed to make their brains and bodies thrive. From eye-level candy displays to supersized popcorn tubs, screens abounding and inaccessible playgrounds, is it any wonder that sedentary lifestyles become the norm?

Habits are hard to break

Experts agree that it’s easier to form a healthy habit in childhood than to change an unhealthy one later in life. But, while parents want the best for their kids, they’re often short on time and long on responsibilities, making it difficult to prioritize cooking a healthy meal, especially when convenience foods are just so convenient.

The good news is there are many steps that parents can take — starting today — and they’re not alone in their responsibility for children’s health. Parents can use their voices to rally everyone in their communities to make small changes that lead to monumental shifts in the health habits of the next generation.

Meeting kids where they are

It’s true that parents often lay the foundation, but kids, like sponges, soak up cues from nearly everyone around them. For much of the year, kids spend the majority of their waking hours at school and eat two, sometimes three meals a day there, making school cafeterias, playgrounds and classrooms especially important places to support health.

Schools are primed for parent and community participation, especially now, thanks to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which provides an opportunity to more fully integrate health and wellness into education policy and practice.

“Experts agree that it’s easier to form a healthy habit in childhood than to change an unhealthy one later in life.”

Through structured afterschool programs, we see parents take an active role on PTA/PTOs or wellness councils, where they coordinate healthy school fundraisers (color runs or community-sponsored 5K races are a hit) or find healthier ways to celebrate birthdays and holidays at school (try fruit kabobs or extra recess minutes).

Staying active

Nationally, nearly 1 in 5 children participates in an afterschool program. Parents can be influential there, too. Parents can encourage staff to set an example by serving nutritious snacks and beverages and providing physical activities where everyone has the opportunity to get moving.

It’s not just places that cater to children that are on the hook. It’s up to the entire community to make it easier for kids to choose health, and that includes store owners, business leaders, restaurateurs, coaches, camp counselors and, yes, parents.

How can parents move the needle in their communities? Attend a city council meeting and understand how neighborhoods are zoned for fast food restaurants or corner stores. Join an advisory board or community group and learn about all the ways environments shape children’s health, from accessibility of sidewalks to availability of parks.

A parent’s voice is powerful. And, the more people come to the table to be part of the solution, the more parents can feel supported in their efforts to help kids live their healthiest lives.