Almost immediately after birth a child begins to imitate their parents. They mimic mannerisms and behaviors such as smiling when their parents smile, make similar noises and, when they are old enough to talk, they repeat what parents say.
So eating a healthy diet, getting a proper amount of exercise and sleeping well should be no different because they’re some of the most important influences of developing healthy habits for children.
“Kids learn best from their parents,” according to Stephanie M. Manasse, an assistant research professor at Drexel University’s WELL Center in Philadelphia. “One of the best ways to get kids to make eating right and exercising the default is to make it part of the family’s habits.”
Chip off the old block
Getting kids to eat fruits and vegetables is not going to go well if parents aren’t also doing the same, Manasse says.
“The same principle is true for exercise; if it’s part of the family routine to go for walks, play outside and/or play sports, kids are much more likely to enjoy these activities and not fight their parents on it,” she says. “If parents treat exercise and eating healthily as a chore, kids are also more likely to see it as a chore. Modeling enjoyment of healthy behaviors, including things like exercise and eating fruits and vegetables, is a great way to set your children up to also enjoy healthy behaviors.”
It’s also easier to start instilling healthful habits when children are younger because they are less likely to create unhealthy habits, says Natalie Madanick, a health coach and owner of One Whole Life, a health and wellness website based in the greater Philadelphia area.
“As our children grow, they are used to a healthier routine mentally and physically,” Madanick says. “Older children have already created their habits, so it can be a little more challenging. There is no ‘one size fits all’ answer.
“It starts with setting an example for them. Model the behavior you would like to see in your children. Create a system where your family can see the meals you are having for the week. I like to use a chalkboard.”
Be healthy together
Madanick says to choose one night that’s “kids choice.” This will create more investment for meal planning.
“Allow your kids to pick the protein, fiber and veggie,” she says. “Do not cook separate meals for your children. Everyone eats the same meal. Make sure you serve water with every meal. Lack of hydration creates a lethargic child. Cooking with your children is also a fun way to not only help them to develop life skills but they invest more in the meal that they are preparing.”
Also, promote a positive body image, which can often be overlooked. In addition, avoid looking in the mirror criticizing your body in front of children. This sets the tone on how your children will see themselves, Madanick says.
You can also go for a family walk after dinner. This increases family time on multiple levels.
“It helps to reduce stress, creates conversation, keeps kids away from electronics, and gives them exercise,” she says.
Don’t forget to set boundaries for tablet usage. Limit screen time at least one hour before bedtime. Studies have shown that using electronics before bed interrupts quality of sleep throughout the night.
“Turning off screen time will help a child’s mind to relax,” Madanick says.
Registered dietitian Amy Shapiro, founder and director of Real Nutrition, a private practice in New York City, said to remember that children go through phases when learning about exercising, sleeping and eating, and they will try to create power struggles.
“Remain calm, and remind yourself that there are very few adult picky eaters,” she says. “You get to tell your kids what to eat; they should tell you when they are hungry and when they are full. They watch you and they idolize you, so if you eat well chances are they will, too.”