I was wandering around the USDA website (yes, I do this for fun) and came across a really great resource: a little fact sheet on how to be a healthy role model for children. It has some simple things you can do, especially if you’re a parent, to make sure kids develop healthy habits early on.
1. Show by example. Eat fruits and veggies, not just for yourself, but for your kids, too. Exercise because you’ll feel better and you’ll pass this routine on to them. Our family regularly joins together in outdoor activities if it’s just throwing a ball around at our local park or going kayaking.
2. Go food shopping together. My son has a blast weighing fruit in the scales and he listens to my conversations with the butcher when I’m selecting meats (I’m very picky about my proteins; you can read more about that here). He sometimes rolls his eyes when he doesn’t feel like going to the store, but I let him pick out the vegetable for dinner and then he eats it proudly later at the table.
3. Get creative in the kitchen. My 7-year-old son likes to cook! When he was in the “clingy 3-year-old” phase, I’d let him “help” by stirring the brownie mix. We’ve since moved on to menu planning, knife work, and flipping pancakes. He always takes pride (and eats more) when he’s had a hand in preparing his dinner.
4. Offer the same foods for everyone. You do not run a restaurant. You are not a short order cook. We plan our meals together and everyone eats the same thing. The rule is: you have to try it, but you don’t have to finish it. I’ve read you have to try a food 10 times before you like it.
5. Reward with attention, not food. If you’re celebrating a child’s success, spend extra time reading a book or playing a favorite game. Do not equate a job well done with a sugary treat or you may be setting up a lifetime struggle with food as comfort.
6. Eat dinner together, every night. This is non-negotiable in my house. We eat dinner together and we talk about our day. Studies have linked family meals to better grades and lower drug use. It’s simple, powerful, and it works. Your whole family will be stronger and happier for it. Remember: make sure you eat at a table and not in front of the TV!
7. Listen to your child. Make sure the kids get to have their say in those dinner conversations. We always ask my son about his day and what was good or bad. He gets the chance to be silly, or talk about a problem, and he likes to be heard. Discussions like this allow your children to feel like fully participating members of the family.
8. Limit screen time. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests limiting screen time to no more than two hours a day. I’m going to go further and suggest only 90 minutes. Let’s face it, for many parents, television or video games are electronic babysitters and an opportunity not to interact with your kids. Hand your child a book, a board game, or start a conversation. Everyone will be happier, and you’ll be building stronger family memories.
9. Encourage physical activity. It doesn’t have to be complicated; we’ll bop around the living room to music after dinner, or run to the park for a quick game of tag. Jumping on the bed expends a lot of calories and helps kids go to bed more easily. We actually bought my son a set of boxing gloves and punching pads and we’ll let him “box” with us to get some of his energy out. It works great and is another way to interact with your child.
10. Be a good food role model. Try new foods yourself, don’t be shy. Set a positive example for your child by trying an exotic fruit at the grocery store or a spicy dish at a restaurant. Let them take a bite too.