Raising healthy children sounds pretty simple: Good nutrition and 60 minutes of physical activity a day protects kids from obesity, diabetes, and a host of chronic diseases later in life.
These days though, health-conscious parents have to compete against any number of unhealthy temptations. "The environment plays a huge role in supporting unhealthy habits," says Tara LaRowe, PhD, assistant scientist in the Department of Family Medicine at University of Wisconsin-Madison.
As a parent, what can you do? Amy Jamieson-Petonic, RD, director of wellness coaching at the Cleveland Clinic, gives parents three rules for healthy eating:
- Make it a family affair.
- Stay involved.
- Keep it simple.
And never forget: Parents play a key role in their children’s choices and behaviors.
1. Play Active Games
One hour of physical activity a day may seem like a lot. But those 60 minutes can happen in short bursts throughout the day. Here are some ideas for active things you can do with your child:
- Play hopscotch.
- Bounce a balloon in the air.
- Play tickle monster.
- Blow bubbles so your child can chase them.
- Kick a soccer ball or play catch.
- Go for walks together.
2. Motivate Your Child in Your Own Way
Different parents support their kids’ physical activity in different ways. What matters most is that your kids know how much you value and support their active pursuits.
- Go on active family outings.
- Sign your child up for sports, help her get to practice, and cheer for her at games.
- Make sure your child has the right clothes for the conditions. Kids can play outside in most weather if they are dressed appropriately and drink enough water.
3. Replace Screen Time with Active Time
TV and Web surfing eat up many hours your child could spend being active. Meanwhile, food ads barrage him with images of tempting, unhealthy foods.
- Pay attention to how much time you and your child spend in front of a screen.
- Take the TV and computer out of your child’s room. Keep both in a public area so you can stay on top of how much time your child spends glued to them.
- Set a daily or weekly TV time limit and stick with it. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests no more than 2 hours of TV time a day for kids 2 and older.
- Plan activities to replace TV watching.
4. Plan for Healthy Meals
If fast food is a staple at your house, you probably know that healthy meals do not magically appear on your table. But healthy food prep does not have to keep you chained to the kitchen. With a little groundwork, you can plan to:
- Buy foods that are healthy and convenient.
- Frozen fruits and vegetables can "health up" a family meal with little effort.
- A can of low-sodium beans can add protein in about a minute.
- Prepare meals that take 30 minutes or less on weeknights.
- Put aside time on the weekend to make things you can freeze now and eat later.
5. Make Nutrition Fun
There are a lot of reasons to get your kids involved in planning and making healthy meals with you. Kids are more likely to eat something they help prepare, and they might learn about where food comes from along the way. Here are some things you can do together:
- Plant a garden and eat what you harvest.
- Go berry or apple picking and make a treat with what you bring home.
- Use cookie cutters to make food in interesting shapes.
- Use fruits and vegetables to make meals colorful and interesting.
- Arrange broccoli into a forest.
6. Slowly Swap Out Unhealthy Foods
You don’t have to turn your kitchen, or your children’s lives upside down. Start with a few low-key substitutions and build from there.
- Cook with olive oil instead of butter.
- Replace white rice with brown rice.
- Phase out high-sugar cereals. Bring home less-sugary options.
- Serve water, low-fat milk, or small amounts of juice instead of soda.
- Add pureed vegetables instead of cheese to pasta sauce.
7. Change the Food Environment
The sight or smell of tempting food can make you believe you’re hungry, even when you just ate. You don’t have to swear off cookies and ice cream forever, but they shouldn’t be a daily staple either. A few environmental changes can help you put the lid on unhealthy urges.
- Keep high-sugar, high-fat snacks someplace hard to see and hard to reach.
- Replace the cookie jar with an inviting bowl of fresh fruit.
- Serve meals on smaller plates to keep portions in check.
- Keep serving dishes off the dinner table. If anyone wants seconds, they can get up for it.
8. Keep Nutrition Affordable
A healthy meal doesn’t have to break the bank. Here are a few low-cost items that don’t take hours to prepare:
- Lentils and beans
- Canned foods, as long as you go for low-sodium options
- Canned salmon has many of the same benefits as fresh salmon at a much lower cost.
- Frozen fruits and vegetables – you can stock up and not worry about them going bad.
- Fruits or veggies that are ‘in season’ or local; these tend to be less expensive.
9. Be a Role Model of Healthy Eating and Physical Activity
For many families, being inactive and living on a diet of sugar and fat are the norm. Your family may have some healthy habits, or very few. Whatever your current status, it’s never too late to make a family commitment to healthy change. As a parent, you can:
- Make healthy habits a priority.
- Keep the conversation positive.
- Get your kids involved.
Your children might not react well at first but rest assured your behavior matters. Work nutritious food and physical activity into your family’s life and continue to talk about the positive benefits. Eventually, most children follow their parents’ lead.