Dietitian Brooke Longfield outlines five smart ways for showing our kids how to lead a healthy life.
There’s something going on in our homes. Children are less active and eat more junk food than ever before. So what can we do to help our kids stay healthy and active, and set them up for lifelong good habits?
1. Move together, every day
Kids are active in different ways to adults. While we might set aside time for a tennis game, a walk or a gym workout, kids will happily play and run during their time at school. But at home, where there are often numerous electronic distractions, it’s a different story, and this can set up unhealthy habits for life.
Half of kids aged between two and 14 usually watched TV for two hours plus each day, according to the 2013—14 New Zealand Health Survey. And an Australian survey found that kids who are allowed screens in their bedrooms take, on average, 1000 fewer steps per day than those who are not.
Extensive research has found long periods of sitting and excessive screen time are linked to increased rates of obesity, so it’s never been more important to get your kids up and active. Try to allocate time each day to helping them do some sort of physical activity. It doesn’t have to be much — 30 minutes is good — walking the dog, kicking a ball around at the park, or swimming in the local pool. And it’s even better if you exercise together as you’re modelling healthy behaviour to your kids — always more effective than just telling them what to do.
- HFG tip: Include more incidental activity each day. Instead of driving the kids to school, try walking, or at least walk them to the bus stop. Take the stairs together at the shops or carpark instead of the lift, and get out more in the garden. Aim to schedule at least one family ‘outing’ each weekend that includes physical activity – it could be low-level activity, such as visiting a park or an exhibition, or watching a sports game, or something more energetic. Encouraging your kids to move their bodies is the aim.
2. Keep meals simple
Researchers have found having too many food choices in your pantry or on the table can make it easy to overeat. It’s called the ‘buffet effect’ — you’re more likely to go for seconds when there’s a smorgasbord of food on offer. Even if it’s all nutritious, having too much variety can actually be counterproductive and lead to overeating.
So ask yourself: Do you really need to have eight different boxes of cereal in the pantry? It’s actually okay for our kids to have the same breakfast Monday to Friday, and then have something a bit different in the weekend. And for dessert, limit the kids’ choices to fruit or yoghurt, with sweets kept in the pantry for the occasional treat.
- HFG tip: Write a detailed shopping list for each time you go to the supermarket, and stick to it. Without a clear plan, it’s too easy to make impulse buys which are often unhealthy.
3. Make healthy snacking easy
Keep a well-stocked fruit bowl on the kitchen bench. And keep sweet treats like chocolate or biscuits at the back of the pantry so they’re out of sight (and, hopefully, out of mind!).
At the front of the fridge place single-serve yoghurt pots, little boxes of cut veges, individual cheese portions and small containers of hummus, so they’re at kids’ eye level. In the pantry, keep savoury wholegrain crackers, single-serve bags of trail mix and muesli bars at the front — they’re good for providing fibre and long-lasting energy.
Once kids see how easy it is to eat well, they can build on these healthy eating habits for life.
- HFG tip: Zip-lock bags are handy for making up single-serve portions for little hands to grab on the go.
4. Share stories over dinner
Eating meals together as a family and sitting down at the dining table with the TV turned off to eliminate distractions provides the perfect opportunity for your children to observe and learn healthy eating behaviours.
A US study found children consume more fruit and veges, and less fried food and soft drink, when they eat at the table. And it’s good for you, too — research shows that eating at the dinner table is linked to a healthier weight for both children and parents.
Dinnertime conversation and family storytelling also helps build the vocabulary of young children — even more so than being read aloud to. Children learned 1000 words at the dinner table compared with just 143 from being read stories, according to a 2006 study.
It’s even more important to keep up the table talk as kids become teenagers, with numerous studies linking regular family dinners with a lower risk of smoking, binge drinking, violence, depressive thoughts and eating disorders.
- HFG tip: If you struggle to find the time to cook and sit down to eat together, see our 5pm panic recipes ADD LINK, all of which can be prepared and cooked in under 30 minutes. And get the kids to help — teaching them how to cook is a way to give them mastery over what they eat and help set up lifelong healthy eating habits.
5. Set a consistent bedtime routine
Many of us underestimate the importance of a good night’s sleep. Not only does it provide important energy for the following day, it’s also vital for healthy growth and a strong immune system. Recent research has found a lack of sleep disrupts hunger hormones and influences our eating habits. When we’re tired during the day we’re more likely to reach for unhealthy snacks, such as chocolate, biscuits, soft drink and coffee.
Sleep is especially important for teens, who tend to have irregular sleep patterns throughout the week. Staying up late texting, watching videos, or chatting on electronic devices leads to poor-quality sleep, as the blue light emitted from a screen reduces the body’s levels of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin.
- HFG tip: Make it a family rule that all electronic devices (TVs, laptops, phones, tablets) are switched off after a certain hour — and that means parents, too!
Article sources and references
- Australian Bureau of Statistics. 2015. Australian Health Survey: Physical activity, 2011–12 www.abs.gov.auhttp://www.abs.gov.au/
- Cornell Food & Brand Lab. Dinner rituals correlate with child, adult weight. Science Daily, 29 October 2013. Available at www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/10/ 131029171952.htm Accessed January 2016https://www.sciencedaily.com/
- Eisenberg et al. 2004. Correlations between family meals and psychological well-being among adolescents. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine 158:792–6https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15289253
- Figueiro et al. 2011. The impact of light from computes on melatonin levels in college students. Neuroendocrinology Letters 32:158–63https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/050d/f99153cbc754fb03f8416e3f036a7097d83b.pdf
- Gillman et al. 2000. Family dinner and diet quality among older children and adolescents. Archives of Family Medicine 9:235–40https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10728109
- Hardman et al. 2015. So many brands and varieties to choose from: Does this compromise the control of food intake in humans? PLoS ONE 10: e0125869https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0125869
- Let’s Move. 2016. Healthy Families www.letsmove.gov/healthy-families Accessed January 2016https://letsmove.obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/eat-healthy/related-posts
- Ministry of Health. 2015. Annual Update of Key Results 2014/15: New Zealand Health Survey. Wellington: Ministry of Healthhttp://www.moh.govt.nz/notebook/nbbooks.nsf/0/997AF4E3AAE9A767CC257F4C007DDD84/$file/annual-update-key-results-2014-15-nzhs-dec15-1.pdf
- National Sleep Foundation. 2016. Teens and Sleep www.sleepfoundation.org/sleep-topics/teens-and-sleep Accessed January 2016https://www.sleepfoundation.org/articles/teens-and-sleep
- Raynor HA & Epstein LH. 2001. Dietary variety, energy regulation, and obesity. Psychological Bulletin 127:325–41https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11393299
- Sen B. 2010. The relationship between frequency of family dinner and adolescent problem behaviors after adjusting for other family characteristics. Journal of Adolescence 33:187–96https://mpra.ub.uni-muenchen.de/24329/
- Snow CE & Beals DE. 2006. Mealtime talk that supports literacy development. New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development 111: 51–66https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/cd.155
- The Family Dinner Project. www.thefamilydinnerproject.orghttps://thefamilydinnerproject.org/