Dietitian Brooke Longfield explores how you can establish healthy habits for your family.
There’s something going on in our homes. Our children are less active and eat more junk food than ever before. So how do we help our children stay healthy and active, and set them up for lifelong good habits?
We share some simple, good routines you can incorporate into your day-to-day lives.
1. Move together, every day
Kids are active in a different way 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 numerous electronic amusements, it’s a different story, which can set up unhealthy habits for life.
Kids aged between five and 17 years spend a little over two hours each day watching TV and using the internet for non-homework purposes, according to the 2011–12 Australian Health Survey. And, interestingly, kids with screens kept in their bedroom take, on average, 1000 less steps per day than those who don’t.
With extensive research finding that long periods of sitting and excessive screen time is linked to increased rates of obesity, it’s never been more important to get your kids up and active. Try to allocate time for them to do some sort of physical activity every day. It doesn’t have to be much — about 30 minutes — walking the dog, kicking a ball around at the park, or swimming in the local pool. And it’s even better if you do it together, as kids see their parents as role models.
HFG tip: Include more incidental activity each day. Instead of driving the kids to school, try walking, or at least walk them to a bus stop. Take the stairs at the shops or parking station 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 — such as flying a kite, a game of cricket or throwing a Frisbee.
2. Keep meals simple
Researchers have found that having too many food choices in your pantry or on the table can make you overeat. It’s called the ‘buffet effect’ — you’re more likely to go for seconds when there is a smorgasbord of foods 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 okay to have the same breakfast from Monday to Friday and then vary it a little over the weekend. And for dessert, limit the kids’ choices to fruits or yoghurts, with sweets only kept in the pantry on special occasions.
HFG tip: Write down a detailed shopping list each time you go to the supermarket, and stick to it. Without a clear plan, it’s 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 are out of sight (and out of mind).
In the fridge, place single-serve yoghurt pots, little boxes of cut vegies, individual cheese portions, and small containers of hoummos at kids’ eye level at the front of the fridge. In the pantry, place savoury wholegrain crackers, single-serve bags of trail mix and a selection of muesli bars at the front, as they provide 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 a handy way to make 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 is the perfect opportunity for your children to observe and learn healthy eating behaviours from you.
A US study found that children eat more fruit and vegies, and less fried food and soft drink, when they eat at the table compared to when they do not. 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 story-telling boosts the vocabulary of young children considerably more than when reading aloud to them. Children learned 1000 words at the dinner table compared to only 143 from being read story books, according to a 2006 study.
It’s even more important to keep up the table talk as kids morph into teens, 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, sit and at together, see our 5pm panic recipes, which can all be prepared and cooked in under 30 minutes. And get the kids to help — teaching them how to cook is another way to set up life-long healthy habits.
5. Set a 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. More recently, research has found that 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 pick-me-up 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 to play on computers, watch TV or text on the phone 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 a family rule that all electronic gadgets (TV, laptops, phones, tablets) are switched off after a certain hour — and that means for parents, too!