6 Strategies to Make Healthy Habits a Team Effort

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Family eating together. Tetra Images/Getty Images

Healthy habits really do begin at home—and that’s true of the behavior patterns that are likely to affect a child’s weight. As a parent, you’re a role model for your children as well as a guide to help them navigate the path toward healthy eating and exercise habits. You have the power to choose which foods to buy at the grocery store and what to serve for meals. You have the power to encourage your kids to participate in physical activities or organized sports, and you have the ability to support these efforts by driving them to these activities and boosting their confidence with well-timed pep talks.

Making healthy lifestyle habits a team effort between you and your kids can go a long way toward helping them achieve a healthy weight. Here are six particularly effective strategies:

Increase kids’ food label literacy. Teaching kids how to read labels on packaged foods can help them learn to make healthier choices for themselves. When you take your kids to the grocery store, you can make a game out of comparing the grams of fat, sugar, or sodium between similar cereals or by comparing the nutritional values in, say, a cup of frozen blueberries and a blueberry muffin.  

Keep exposing kids to new foods. If you regularly serve a variety of nutritious fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and beans, even if your kids don’t like them the first time they try them, familiarity is likely to breed acceptance. Encourage your kids to taste new foods but don’t force kids to eat them; that approach is likely to backfire and increase a child’s dislike for novel foods.

Keep in mind: Involving your kids in the selection and preparation of new foods can help entice them to try and (hopefully) accept new foods.

Watch out for portion distortion. When it comes to take-out fare and restaurant portions, bigger is often considered a better value—but not for kids’ waistlines.

So hit the pause button and think carefully about whether your 7-year-old really needs a drink the size of a small wastebasket. It’s also important to give kids age-appropriate servings at home. If they have hefty appetites, you might provide smaller servings of entrées and larger portions of fruits and vegetables, a tactic that has been found to lower overall calorie intake

Eat together as a family. It’s long been known that family meals play an important role in promoting healthy eating habits among kids and reducing negative risk-taking behavior among teens. But what happens during the meal can make a difference, too. Instead of watching TV during the family meal, which has been linked with poorer diet quality, it’s best to use the time to connect with each other. In a study involving 40 parents and teens, researchers at the University of Minnesota video-recorded two meals in the families’ homes then examined the factors that correlated with the teens’ body mass index (BMI) and dietary patterns.

The most noteworthy finding: Teens with a lower BMI and a higher intake of vegetables tended to have family meals filled with positive communication, mood management, interpersonal involvement, and overall family functioning.  

Make sleep a priority. If your kids don’t snooze enough, they may lose the weight-control battle. Not only is regularly clocking sufficient sleep important for a child’s growth and development, but it can also help regulate hormone levels that affect appetite and satiety (feelings of fullness). Teens, especially girls, who regularly sleep less than eight hours per night tend to have higher BMI scores, tend to be more sedentary, and often don’t eat enough fruits, vegetables, and fish, according to research in the International Journal of Obesity.

Encourage regular physical activity. When parents are physically active, there’s a greater chance their kids will be, too. Modeling and sharing your love of movement can make your kids want to do it with you. In fact, research from the Canadian Fitness and Lifestyle Research Institute in Ottawa found a correlation between parents increasing their number of steps per day and their kids following suit, based on pedometer readings. So find ways to get moving with your kids, whether it’s by walking to school together, playing tennis, going for a bike ride together, or doing another enjoyable physical activity. Getting Dad involved can be especially helpful as positive reinforcement for physical activity, research suggests.

Sources:

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Craig CL, Cameron C, Tudor-Locke C. Relationship between parent and child pedometer-determined physical activity: a sub-study of the CANPLAY surveillance study. The International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, January 18, 2013 [Accessed online September 21, 2014]; 10:8.
Garaulet M, Ortega FB, Ruiz JR, Rey-Lopez JP, Béghin L, Manios Y, Cuenca-Garcia M, Plada M, Diethelm K, Kafatos A, Molnar D, Al-Tahan J, Moreno LA. Short sleep duration is associated with increased obesity markers in European adolescents: effect of physical activity and dietary habits. The HELENA study. International Journal of Obesity, October 2011 [Accessed online September 21, 2014]; 35(10): 1308-17.
Katz DL, Katz CS, Treu JA, Reynolds J, Njike V, Walker J, Smith E, Michael J. Teaching healthful food choices to elementary school students and their parents: the Nutrition Detectives program. Journal of School Health, January 2011 [Accessed online September 21, 2014]; 81(1): 21-8.
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