Growing up, many of us probably remember the phrase, “do as I say, not as I do,” coming out of the mouths of the adults around us. Some of us may have even uttered those words ourselves. However, when it comes to setting good examples for our children, shouldn’t the expression be reversed? Ideally, shouldn’t we be telling our children “do as I do?”
From the time they are born, our children look to us for guidance on how to navigate the world. Their behaviors are shaped by what they see and, in those formative years, what they see is what we do. If we are constantly losing our tempers, exhibiting poor eating habits and leading sedentary lifestyles, our children will most likely follow suit.
Good Health is a Family Affair
We’ve all been guilty of hitting the drive-through for a “less-than-healthy-but-happy” meal when life’s demands leave us short on time. Couple that with the fact that today’s youth spend hours “plugged in” rather than outside, and you can see why the rate of childhood obesity has tripled over the past 30 years. In fact, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than one-third of children and teens are either overweight or obese. So how do you set the tone for a healthy lifestyle? You make it a family affair, and it’s never too early or late to start.
“The easiest way to get your kids to make good choices when it comes to nutrition is to make it fun and involve them in the meal planning and preparation,” says Angela Aladjem, registered dietician, nutritionist and fitness instructor. “Take them to the grocery or the farmer’s market, and get them involved in the kitchen with age-appropriate jobs. Even a toddler can wash vegetables.”
Tim Mcdiarmid, owner of Tim the Girl catering says her 10-year-old son has been making scrambled eggs since the tender age of 4!
“He’s actually a really good little cook,” she says proudly.
Mcdiarmid, who believes in the benefits of healthy eating, offers a meal delivery service to make that easier for busy families. She takes her son along on trips to local farmer’s markets and farms to assist in the selection of the fresh ingredients she uses in both the meals she prepares for clients and the meals she prepares at home.
“He really likes watching and helping in the kitchen,” she says. “He asks questions and we discuss the various ways that the foods you ingest affect your body and your health.”
But what if your child doesn’t share Mcdiarmid’s son’s culinary interest? What if he or she won’t even try fruits and vegetables? Worse yet, what if you have an aversion to them yourself? Sometimes, according to Aladjem, it’s all about presentation.
“Try preparing things in a new way,” she recommends, adding that sometimes with children (and adults), it’s about texture more than taste.
“You may not like a fruit or vegetable in its raw form, but you might find that you enjoy it cooked or steamed,” she says. “If at first you don’t succeed, try it differently.”
San Antonio mom Katherine Eversberg gets the good stuff into her daughter’s diet by making smoothies together, allowing the 4-year-old to choose fruits and vegetables to blend with Greek yogurt.
“She loves them,” says Eversberg, adding that the time spent preparing the treats allows mom and daughter to talk about the benefits of good foods. “We talk a lot about making healthy food choices, and about how fruits and vegetables give our bodies and brains energy so we can grow.”
Catherine Burke’s two teenage daughters often request grilled fruit for dessert, and they enjoy building fruit kabobs from seasonal fresh produce.
“They like being hands-on,” says Burke, who says that the girls often take the kabobs to school or to youth group meetings when they are responsible for providing the snack.
Kabobs are not the only way to have fun with your food. Aladjem likes creating “build your own” buffets filled with healthy choices for traditionally non-healthy foods. A burrito bar, for example, might contain beans, lettuce, lean ground meat and a low fat cheese, while a pizza bar could contain a variety of chopped veggies to top a whole-wheat crust. These build-your-own buffets also offer an excellent way for the family to customize their individual meals while eating the same thing for dinner – another aspect Aladjem advocates in setting the tone for healthy eating habits.
“It’s important that everyone eats the same thing for dinner,” she states. “If the adults are eating something different, it sends the wrong message.”
That applies to beverages too. Children love the sugary sweet taste of soda and artificial sweeteners. If your child sees you chugging down your diet soda with dinner, or adding three or four packets of sweetener to your iced tea, they learn that it is acceptable.
“You really have to watch the artificial sweeteners as well as the caffeine in the beverages your children consume, “ cautions Aladjem. “Being over-caffeinated has become a major problem for children today.
The Family that Plays Together
Healthy eating habits and a healthy lifestyle usually go hand-in-hand. However, in today’s high-tech world, children would rather spend hours in front of a screen than outside running and playing. Want to get your kids moving? Put down your own “iThing” and show them how!
“Kids should have strict limits on screen time,” advocates Aladjem, pointing out that those limits should include everything from television to computer to phone. “Active time should be encouraged every day and the parents should join in too!”
Natalie Bock, an avid runner and track/cross country coach, says the trick is to make exercise fun.
“I want to instill the love of the outdoors and physical activity in my kids,” says the mom of two. “I want them to view physical activity as a completely natural and fun alternative to a sedentary lifestyle, rather than as a concentrated effort to ‘exercise and get in shape.’”
To facilitate that, Bock takes her children, ages 4 and 7, exploring in the greenbelt near their home, and she rides bike trails with her 7-year-old daughter. They camp out, go hiking, and of course, go running.
“I’ve been so excited for my kids to get old enough to run with me,” says this active mom whose 7-year-old recently completed her first 5K. “We just went at her pace and talked and laughed all the way,” she describes. “It was fantastic to share one of my favorite experiences with her.”
You don’t have to be an athlete to get yourself and your kids up and running, and you don’t need fancy equipment. In fact, some of the best exercise can come from just playing. Run around in the back yard playing tag. Go for walks or bike rides together after dinner and talk about your day. Take up a sport you can play together like tennis, or go for swims in the summer. The important thing is to make it an enjoyable part of your life, not a chore.
Hold That Temper
Good dietary habits and a healthy lifestyle go a long way in dealing with stress and anger management. When you are getting proper nutrition, enough rest, and adequate exercise, you are better equipped to deal with the inconveniences that life throws your way. Don’t believe it? Think of how a simple situation can become compounded when you are tired or hungry. The same is true for your kids, and the way you deal with stressful situations trickles down. For example, do you reach for a big slice of chocolate cake when your feelings are hurt? Do you scream and swear at the driver that cut you off in traffic? Then don’t be surprised when your children do the same. Modeling healthy habits includes modeling how to deal with stress, and understanding that time-outs aren’t just for kids.
Breathing is an amazing way to calm yourself, whether you are 2 or 42. Aladjem recommends two breathing exercises that can help you calm down when you or your children are spiraling out of control. First, try the four/four/four method. Inhale for four counts, hold the breath for four counts, and exhale for four counts. Or, try this anxiety reliever: close your eyes and take deep breaths while counting backwards from 10.
“Anyone can do this anytime and anywhere,” she says.
An open dialogue is another excellent stress reliever. Talking to your children about what’s bothering you shows them how you deal with your own problems and can facilitate an honest discussion about theirs. Allowing yourself to tell them, “I need a time out,” is OK too, as it shows that there are times when you need to be alone to process your feelings rather than succumb to a knee-jerk reaction.
“I try to validate my daughters’ feelings and frustrations and give them permission to have those feelings,” says Hallie Nikotich, a mother of three girls ranging from elementary to high school age. “You can lose your cool and take a personal mental health day when you need to, as long as you aren’t tearing others down in the process.”
If you do lose your cool and react in a way that you are less than proud of, the best thing you can do for your child is to not beat yourself up over it, but simply take responsibility for it. Apologize and acknowledge your mistake and then discuss ways you could have handled the situation.
“An open and active dialogue is always best,” recommends Aladjem. “Find the positive in any situation and your child will learn to do the same.”
Bonny Osterhage is a San Antonio freelance writer and mother of two.