Proper nutrition and activity level are extremely important for children. They set them up for good habits as they get older and head into adulthood. There are many benefits of a healthy lifestyle, including more energy, better sleep, better focus at school, maintenance of a proper body weight, and less risk of several diseases that typically develop later in life including diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, and stroke. Other concerns of inadequate nutrition in children are behavioral problems and hyperactivity, fatigue (including less alertness), obesity, poor bone health, dental cavities, and possibly emotional stress and anxiety.
Here are nine simple things families can do to get healthy together in the new year.
1. Help picky eaters to learn to love healthy food.
Picky eaters can be very challenging and frustrating at times. My biggest advice is to keep offering kids foods every day, even if they don't eat them. I do believe in disguising/hiding some foods in other more widely-accepted dishes, but I also believe that if you continuously talk to, and teach your children about good nutrition, they will eventually make the decision to eat better on their own. They will learn to love nutrient-dense foods and understand the health benefits of them. It may take some time, and you may give in here and there, but keep those veggies on their plates! Try to set an example for them by trying new vegetables yourself and limiting your intake of processed and fast foods.
Here are my favorite ways to hide healthy foods:
- Add kale, spinach, and/or carrots in fruit smoothies.
- Stir in some unsweetened canned pumpkin in oatmeal or yogurt.
- Add some cooked, mashed butternut squash to your favorite mac and cheese recipe.
- Use cooked spaghetti squash instead of pasta noodles with your marinara.
- Make a rainbow pizza with your kids using vegetables of all colors to create the colors of the rainbow, then cover it with cheese.
- Melt some cheese on veggies! It’s so simple and works well with steamed broccoli and cauliflower.
- Cook chicken breast in a slow cooker with a block of cream cheese and a bag of frozen chopped spinach and serve with rice or pasta.
2. Get the soda out of the house!
Soda provides no nutritional value and is loaded with added sugar. There is no health benefit to drinking soda and it can potentially be one of the main causes of many of the diseases mentioned earlier.
3. Decrease the processed foods in your house.
It is very challenging to get away from processed foods altogether, but here are some easy swaps:
- Instead of cereal in the morning, create your own oatmeal using rolled oats, milk of choice, fresh or dried fruit, nut butter, a little honey or maple syrup, and flax or chia seeds.
- Instead of pre-sweetened yogurt, use plain Greek yogurt and sweeten it with 1 tablespoon of natural sweetener like honey or real maple syrup. Add in some chopped nuts and fruit for a mid-afternoon snack or a sweet treat after dinner.
- Instead of highly processed crackers and cookies, enjoy string cheese and a piece of fruit for your morning snack fix.
- Instead of soda, sweet tea, or juice, drink naturally-flavored sparkling water.
- Instead of pre-made breakfast bars, pastries, and granola bars, make your own energy bites. There are so many recipes out there that are simple and straightforward, using natural, nutrient-dense, flavorful, and fun ingredients.
4. Try to stay away from artificial sweeteners.
These sweeteners contain no calories, are artificial, and provide no health benefits. They are considered non-nutritive. They also make foods extremely sweet, therefore setting up your palate to prefer a high level of sweetness. I recommend sweetening foods on your own with a moderate amount of a natural sweetener. Artificial sweeteners include, but are not limited to, sucralose (Splenda), acesulfame potassium (Sweet One), aspartame (Equal), saccharin (Sweet N Low), and some sugar alcohols like xylitol and sorbitol. Artificial sweeteners are in many processed food products like yogurt, cookies, candies, breads and other baked goods, cereals, diet sodas, chewing gum, salad dressings, and even toothpaste and liquid medications. It's tough to eliminate them completely, but the best way to limit them is by reading labels! Look for those mentioned above and try to find an alternative product if possible.
5. Focus on what you can add into your diet!
Add more nutrient-dense foods. This means foods with a high amount of nutrients and a moderate amount of calories. Examples include vegetables, fruits, whole grains like quinoa and brown/wild rice, nuts, seeds, lean meats, low-fat dairy products, and fatty fish like salmon.
6. Practice portion control of high-calorie foods.
High fat and high sugar foods are what many people typically crave and tend to gravitate to because they carry a lot of flavor and make people feel satisfied and happy. These foods can have a place in the diet occasionally, but should be eaten in moderation. I like to follow the 90/10 guideline, 90% of the time focus on healthy nutrient-dense foods, and 10% of the time eat some "splurge" foods, if you so desire.
7. Find simple ways for your family to get and stay active.
One of the easiest ways is to take walks together. In the spring and summer months, when it's still light outside after dinner, take a 30-minute walk, either in your neighborhood or go to a public park. Your family may also enjoy hiking on the weekends. Do a little research in your hometown, find some hiking trails, and get out and do some exploring. If you really don't want to get outside or if the weather isn't holding up, walk around the mall or play some active games at home like charades or freeze dance. Occasionally it may be a good idea to slow it down a bit before bed with some family yoga.
8. Encourage active time for your kids.
Kids get excited about outings, even if it's something as simple as going to the grocery store. Look up a new recipe with an unusual ingredient and see who can find it first at the store. Try to limit TV, phone, and game time during certain days and times. This is important for adults as well! Come up with a morning ritual for one day on the weekend so your kids get up, get moving, and start the day off with an activity.
For example, our Saturday ritual for most of the year, when the weather is good, is waking up at the normal time and eating a hearty breakfast, then going to the farmers market, walking around, buying some fresh veggies, listening to the live music, and getting a honey pop. Then we head to the playground for a bit. Another fun idea, mainly for older kids, is to train for a race or other sporting event together. Most 5k races these days also include a "fun run" for the younger ones. Come up with some goals together and set aside some time a couple times a week to train for the event.
9. Be sure to get enough active time in your week.
Both children and adults should get at least an hour of physical activity most days of the week, with 3 of those days consisting of 20-30 minutes of vigorous activity.
Bree Marsh is a personal trainer and nutrition counselor at Athens Personal Fitness in Athens, GA. She assists clients in creating a healthy and active lifestyle and helps them reach their fitness and nutrition goals. She has a degree in Dietetics and is a registered and licensed dietitian.