McKenzie Rockwood, registered dietician and founder of Citrus Pear

We all know that healthy eating and regular physical activity don’t become habits overnight. It takes time and effort to make lifestyle changes and incorporate them into our daily routine. At Citrus Pear, we believe including the whole family is the best way to encourage healthy habits in our children and in turn, hold ourselves accountable.

Research shows children are often more willing to eat healthy foods and be active if they see their parents and other family members doing these things first. When the whole family participates, everyone benefits. This also prevents singling out feelings of failure or disappointment, and unnecessary pressures on children and family members. 

While that includes eating healthy foods and moving our bodies, it also encompasses refraining from food moralizing, criticizing our own eating habits or those of others, and modeling the same joyous and adventurous attitude toward eating you hope to instill in your children. (As a bonus, this can do wonders for your own relationship with food!) Kids will look to you to learn how to behave.

The patterns and habits we develop as children will often determine our lifestyle as adults. That’s why teaching good nutrition and exercise habits are vital to raising healthy children. Studies show that overweight children are more likely to be overweight adults and develop chronic diseases later in life. So let’s do all we can to help them while they’re young! 

Here are seven tips to prepare your children for a healthy lifestyle:

1. SPILL THE BEANS 

While providing food choices like whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and lean proteins is important for kids’ growth and development, teaching them WHY these foods are beneficial and important can motivate them to make healthier choices on their own. Encouraging them to drink milk for healthy bones, eat wheat bread to have more energy at soccer practice, or snack on oranges to prevent a cold can empower them to make choices for their health and well-being. Avoid associating foods with weight and body size. Instead, focus on how certain foods make them feel and how they fuel their bodies. 

2. GOOD FOODS AND BAD FOODS

Oftentimes, parents will label sugary, fried, and salty foods such as fries, donuts, cookies, and Cheetos as “bad” and fruits and vegetables as “good,” which can create a judgmental picture of food in your child’s head. Kids should be allowed to be kids, and that includes experimenting with and trying all foods. Labeling foods as good or bad attaches a moral value to food and can lead to disordered eating patterns and thoughts that can be life-altering for children and their families. Putting ultimatums and absolutes on such foods can also create hoarding, hiding, and binging. 

3. DIVISION OF RESPONSIBILITY

For many, this can be the most difficult task associated with parenting. As parents, it is our responsibility to provide what, when, and where our children can eat. It is our children’s responsibility to decide if they want to eat those foods or not. Do not make mealtime a struggle or battle for control. Allow your children to practice autonomy and listen to their bodies. By showing trust in your child to feed themselves, you’re teaching them that their body’s cues are worth trusting and ensuring they don’t lose touch with those important hunger and fullness signals. This will allow your children to foster a healthier relationship with food.

4. WE LIKE TO MOVE IT MOVE IT

Kids need 60 minutes of physical activity each day. This can be split-up throughout the day or done at once at a sporting event. Set limits with devices and set goals for movement. Plan activities as a family, such as weekly hikes, family sports teams, step challenges, dance parties, etc. Include all family members to promote healthy relationships and build a support network for each other. 

5. SWITCH OFF AND TUNE IN

Set limits for screen time. On average, children ages 8-12 in the United States spend four to six hours a day watching or using screens, and teens spend up to nine hours. This can lead to:

  • Sleep problems
  • Lower grades 
  • Reading fewer books 
  • Less time with family and friends 
  • Not enough outdoor or physical activity 
  • Weight problems 
  • Mood problems 
  • Poor self-image and body-image issues 
  • Fear of missing out 
  • Less time learning other ways to relax and have fun

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry recommends that children over age 6 limit activities that include screens by:

  • Turning off all screens during family meals and outings
  • Learning about and using parental controls. 
  • Avoiding using screens as pacifiers, babysitters, or to stop tantrums
  • Turning off screens and removing them from bedrooms 30-60 minutes before bedtime

6. MEET AT THE DINNER TABLE 

Family meals are a comforting ritual for both parents and kids. Children like the predictability of family meals and parents get a chance to catch up with their kids. Kids who take part in regular family meals are: 

  • More likely to eat fruits, vegetables, and grains 
  • Less likely to snack on unhealthy foods 
  • Less likely to smoke, use marijuana, or drink alcohol 

Family meals are also a chance for parents to introduce kids to new foods and be role models for healthy eating. 

A few ways to encourage and support family meals are: 

  • Get your children involved in the planning and preparation 
  • Let your children invite a friend to dinner 
  • Have a set dinner time so children know what to expect 
  • Keep mealtime fun and engaging, avoid lectures or arguing 

Use services like Citrus Pear to take the stress out of planning and preparing dinner each night 

7. MENTAL HEALTH 

Promoting wellness for children goes beyond physical health; it encompasses their mental, emotional, and social well-being. Encourage open communication and create a safe space for them to express their emotions. Teach them coping mechanisms like deep breathing or journaling to manage stress and emotions effectively. Engage in activities like storytelling, reading, or puzzles to stimulate their minds and encourage creativity.