Simple steps to get your whole family eating better and enjoying a healthier life.
Even if you haven’t seen The Biggest Loser: The Next Generation, the ads alone are a graphic reminder of just how our eating habits and lifestyle influence our kids’ future health.
Knowing this, maybe you catch yourself worrying about the health habits you’re imparting and whether you’ve been a little lax on healthy cooking lately. Perhaps it’s time to make some changes.
What you do, rather than what you say, is the most powerful lesson of all. A UK study that looked at the habits of more than 100 families found parents' own behaviour was far more influential in improving children’s diet than exerting dietary control. Another study looking at overweight kids found focusing on the parents, and teaching them about food, resulted in significantly more weight loss than when education was given to the kids. Happily, shaking off bad food habits and giving your family a health ‘makeover’ isn’t like a gruelling reality-show, it’s a matter of making small changes. Here are five easy steps to set your family on the right track.
1. Set goals
Even if the initial motivation is to lose weight, it’s important to focus on health not weight.
As dietitian Sarah Elliott says, “forget the scales. Don’t comment on people’s shape or weight, instead focus on eating more fresh produce, regular family fun activity and highlight ways everyone can benefit from things like improvements to energy levels and quality of sleep.”
Make small, but realistic changes
To successfully make over your family’s health habits, all adults in the house need to be onboard.
Once you’ve agreed, discuss what’s important to each of you. Then, it’s time to get together as a family and discuss exactly what you’re going to do and how you are going to go about it.
To succeed you need to set goals. Paediatric dietitian Debbie Iles recommends picking two or three small changes to work on, rather than rushing headlong into too many radical changes at once. We've provided some suggestions - and you can add your own. Work out which ones you want to tackle first.
You may want to enlist your kids in the goal setting, too. Enthusiasm rubs off on children, says Elliott, and using the right terminology is vital - rather than saying, “I guess we should do this”, use positive language like “it’d be great if we do this”.
Limit takeaway to once a week
Once a fortnight is ideal. Cooking at home ensures you and your family are eating healthier foods (even takeaways that seem healthy can be high in kilojoules, salt and saturated fat).
Kids seeing you cook, and being encouraged to participate, will help them develop healthy cooking skills too.
Too busy? On weekends make double (or more) quantities so there’s always a meal in the freezer. Look for our fast 5pm Panic recipes, which take the same time as takeaway. Plus, sign up for HFG's twice weekly 5pm Panic recipe emails, at healthyfoodguide.com.au.
Eat together, at least several times every week
“Research clearly shows people eat more if they’re distracted - between 10-50 per cent more. Research also shows that children who eat dinners at the table with their parents have better nutrition and show signs of improved behaviour,” says Elliott.
Try to make meals a time for the family to catch up on the day. Conversation is important. A new US study found families who engaged with one other over a 20-minute meal four times a week weighed significantly less than when kids left the table after 15-17 minutes. While a New Zealand study of secondary school students found those who regularly shared family meals were more likely to report better family relationships and better health (including less drug and alcohol use and smoking).
Another study found kids who eat in front of the television or in their room are more likely to be overweight or obese.
Serve healthy portions
A cut of meat equal in size and thickness to the palm of your hand is the right amount of meat for a meal (a child’s hand is much smaller than a man’s, so they’ll need less). A fist is a good guide for pasta, rice or potatoes.
For a healthy balance, serve meals so that each plate contains half salad or vegies, a quarter meat (or vegetarian protein) and a quarter rice, pasta, potatoes or bread.
Also, remember it’s healthy and normal to leave food on your plate if you’re feeling satisfied. Insisting your kids eat everything can increase their risk of becoming overweight as they can get into a habit of ignoring their body’s appetite signals.
Introduce healthy new family meals
Mix up your weeknight dinners with new, healthy dishes. Trying a new recipe each week is a good start. Expand your repertoire of fruit and veg (a healthy diet should include a rainbow of fruit and vegies each day). Make it fun and conduct a tasting of a few new vegetables everyone can take part in. Just make sure you serve other familiar foods at the same time.
If your child has a friend who is an adventurous eater, they may be more likely to try a new food if they are present, so invite them over for dinner once a week.
Make breakfast a good start for everyone
Ensure you all get up in time to sit down and eat a healthy, balanced breakfast every day. Breakfast fuels your metabolism and is important for concentration over the day.
2. Makeover your grocery shop
Good eating habits tend to flow from the foods available in the house. So your weekly grocery shop is key. Take a look in your pantry and fridge - are there a few things that you feel you could swap for better options? What kind of snack options are available for the family?
Keep the good stuff within reach!
Instead of biscuits, chips, cake and chocolates, keep a large bowl of fresh fruit visible for people to grab when hunger strikes. In your fridge and pantry have healthy snacks like hommous, carrot sticks, grainy biscuits, nuts and dried fruit. If you've got time, put a handful into zip-lock bags (or small plastic containers) so one bag is a healthy-sized snack.
“As parents, you make the choices about what’s available in the house, and then they can make choices from what’s available,” explains Iles.
If a child is really hungry then they will eat whatever healthy options are available to them, Iles explains.
Change your family’s drinks to water or milk - again, if they're thirsty, they'll drink it. Save juice, fizzy drinks and cordial for special treats, no more than once a week.
Make a meal plan
Work out in advance what each night’s meal will be, and then add the ingredients to your shopping list. This makes it much easier for your family to stick to healthy meals.
What a healthy grocery shop looks like
Five weekday meals
Lots of your family's favourite vegies
Lean cuts of meat like steak, chicken breast and premium mince
No-added-salt tins of lentils and chickpeas
Eggs for a quick and easy omelette
Healthy snacks - great if they come in single serves
Lots of fresh fruit
Wholegrain muesli bars
Reduced-fat cheddar cheese
Healthy dips like hommous or low-fat tzatziki
Kids’ lunchbox foods for the week
Wholegrain bread or wraps
Lots of fresh salad items
Tubs or pouches of reduced-fat yoghurt
Snack packs of plain popcorn or pretzels
Wholegrain crackers and reduced-fat cheese
Healthy breafast options
Oats or high-fibre cereal
Lots of fresh fruit
Wholegrain bread for toast
No-added-salt baked beans
Natural peanut butter
3. Make it fun
Don’t restrict or ban food - just limit treat foods like chocolate to once a week or once a fortnight. Meanwhile, talk about your new, healthy options and explain why they are better choices.
“Kids like to know what’s good for them,” says Iles.
Relate foods to the things your children care about, such as sports or doing well at school.
Discuss food's benefits
Let them know lean protein such as red meat, chicken, fish and calcium in dairy products give them strength for sports, that wholegrain bread and cereal will give them energy to get through the day/play sport, that fruits and vegetables have antioxidants that add lustre to skin and hair, and eating a healthy breakfast can help them concentrate in class.
Shopping together is a great idea if you have time. Let children choose vegetables and fruit at the supermarket, or talk to them about what makes a healthy food. Teach older kids how to read the labels of their favourite foods and make the best choice by comparing the protein, fibre, saturated fat and sugar content.
Get them packing lunches
Get children to help assemble their lunchboxes. If they have a sense of ownership they’re more likely to eat it. Try sitting down with them and creating a meal plan for their lunches throughout the week, or get them to choose from a list of healthy snacks you’ve created (one fruit and one dairy snack each day is a good guide to start with).
On the weekends, get them involved in making lunchbox foods for the week ahead, such as fritters, mini muffins or muesli bars. The night before, they could wash or peel vegies, stir foods, tear lettuce or break eggs as you pack lunch.
Encourage older kids to help cook dinner or breakfast on the weekend, while discussing the importance of the different foods. It’s a great way to expand their food knowledge and skills.
Also, think about starting a vegie or herb garden if you have space. Talk to your kids about where different types of foods come from so they have an appreciation for it. Taking family trips during school holidays to pick berries or visiting a dairy farm are ways to get them to understand the sources of their food.
Get kids active in the kitchen
Get kids to help with dinner
Assign them simple tasks like making salad or mashing potato
Encourage creative suggestions for what they would like to eat
Discuss why certain choices are more healthy
Older kids can make a regular family meal
A simple meal that becomes 'their' dish
Make it part of their duties to earn pocket money
Get them to pick a new recipe they would like to try with your help each week
Get kids to help pack their own lunchbox
Discuss and plan what’s going in their lunch for the week, such as fillings for sandwiches or which fruit they'd like for snacks
Get kids to bake lunchbox treats
On the weekend, get them to help bake healthy lunchbox treats, like vegie and cheese fritters, mini muffins or home-made muesli bars
4. Sticking to it
After introducing new healthy habits, you’ll want to make sure they stick. When you first set your goals, make a diary note each month to review how well you’re doing, and whether these goals have successfully become ‘habits’. If they've slipped, make the effort to get back on track. You may need to re-adjust and change your goals. Remember goals should be related to the behaviours you are trying to change, not anyone’s weight.
Healthy eating habits are more likely to stick if you praise family members when they choose healthy foods such as fruits, vegies, wholegrains, or low-fat dairy products
If you’ve achieved a goal, then set your family some new goals.
Lastly, if stress levels, sickness or tiredness cause your new habits to regress, don’t be disheartened.
“People tend to go back to their default setting when any of those three things happen, but to stay on track all they may need to do is simply plan their meals each week and keep the fruit bowl stocked,” says Elliott.
Remember, little changes now will result in long term gains - creating an environment where your family makes healthy, nutritional choices is one of the most important steps to ensure their lifelong health, and yours.
“By making over your family’s health you’re helping to set up eating preferences for life, you’re giving your children a really important gift by teaching them to appreciate a wide range of nutritious food, so get creative and get tasty,” says Elliott.
5. Move more
Good health habits aren’t reliant on food alone - it also takes exercise. Weight loss, healthy muscle and bone development, good concentration at school and resilience to life’s everyday stresses, require all of us to move, and puff, a little bit each day.
Remember, it’s hard for your kids to take you seriously about needing more exercise if they see you sitting on the couch. Every member of the family needs to make activity a part of every day.
To kick start this new activity pattern it’s a good idea to draw a chart on the fridge which each family member can tick off when they complete their day’s activities. Reward yourselves at the end of the week with non-food treats; such as a family day at the zoo, or a trip to the movies, a DVD, or dad being the focus of a water fight.
Ideas to get started
Walk the kids to school
Walk instead of drive, whenever you can
Take the stairs instead of the lift
Take a family walk in the morning or after dinner
Go for a half-hour walk instead of watching TV
Get off the bus a stop early, and walk
Make weekend walks a ritual
Take the dog on longer walks
Kick a football together at a park
Ride bikes along cycle tracks
Swim and splash around at the pool
Share the family chores like mowing, cleaning windows or washing the car
Join an exercise group, and enrol your children in community sports teams or lessons
Do sit-ups in front of the TV. Have a sit-up competition with your kids
Pace the sidelines at kids’ athletic games
Use an exercise video if the weather is bad
Swim with your kids
Move more together each day
Try hanging a simple chart like this on the fridge to help encourage daily exercise.
Type of activity
What day of the week?
What time of the day?
Who will do it?
Did we do it?
Walk the dog
Mum & Sally
At least 15-20 minutes
Yes! Sally & Michael switched on Tues
Dad & Michael
Throw a ball
River View Park
Yes. We played for 2 hours each this Sunday
Tips to cut screen time for a healthier family
The figures make for grim reading - too much screen time in childhood and adolescence is linked to obesity, poor fitness and raised cholesterol in adulthood.
Despite this, more than half of children still watch more than the recommended two hours of screen time each day.
But there are ways that you can reduce screen time without too many protests, says Ralph Maddison, principal investigator of a New Zealand study which has trialled methods to cut back on screen time of 250 families.
Among the researchers’ recommendations
Break the habit of your child coming home from school and immediately turning on the TV or computer with this rule. First, have a snack, and then do a non-screen-based activity for half an hour ñ it could be getting active with their skateboard, basketball, playing with toys or simply reading a book or comic.
Cut down on screen time gradually. Decrease their screen time by 10 per cent each week, compared to their usual amount, and keep reducing it by 10 per cent each week until you're well within the two hours a day recommended limit.
Discuss and agree on a ‘screen time’ budget with your child. Plan screen time for the week to ensure they don’t go over the budget. Post the budget in a visible place, like on the fridge.
Involve the whole family. It will be hard for your child to stay away from TV if the rest of the family is watching it.
Remove TV or video games from your child’s bedroom. Put video games in hard to reach places.
Hang a sign over the TV during non-TV time. Make sure there are toys on hand, or an area where your child has everything they need to do their homework.
Be a positive role model. Turn off the TV at night and read. Encourage older siblings to play with younger siblings.
Reward your child for their desired behaviour. It can be as simple as praise “I'm so proud of you for finding other things to do than watch TV, great stuff.” Go outside and play catch with them (kids have endless capacity for your attention) or go on a family outing.