“Monkey see, monkey do” is a pretty apt way of describing how our kids learn from us. When we set an example for our kids, we can be pretty sure that they're going to copy us, for better or for worse. When it comes to our health and eating habits, the example we set for our kids (and the meals we cook for them!) set the foundation for their choices as they grow up. If we don't take care of ourselves, we can't expect our kids to develop healthy habits. If we are out of whack and making poor health choices for ourselves, it is highly likely that our children will, too.
That's not to suggest that we have to make perfect healthy choices every second — we're only human, after all. However, there are definitely things we should do as parents to help establish a healthy environment at home and ensure our kids grow up healthy. That's why KIDmandment #8 addresses Health.
Instill Good Eating Habits
When our kids are young, we have total control over their diet. If we don't take the time to feed them high-quality meals, they'll grow up believing that eating poorly is the norm. If we serve them healthful, age-appropriate foods that include adequate protein and low-fat carbohydrates, they'll develop a more complex palette for food and healthy food will become their standard.
Kids, being kids, are bound to beg us for candy, junk food, and soda. Although we want to make our kids happy, we can't be weak and use sugar as a pacifier! Having a treat every once in a while is fine, but if we feed our kids a steady diet of chicken nuggets and candy bars, it will greatly affect their health down the line. As this article in the Washington Post points out, some health advocates believe that getting kids to move past the children's menu is one of the best ways to ensure that they don't grow up to be picky eaters.
Exercise is Key
Managing weight is actually a pretty simple formula. If we burn more calories than we eat, we lose weight. If we eat more calories than we burn, we gain weight. It really is that simple. In living a healthy lifestyle as a model for our kids, we need to make sure we're active and burning off most of the calories that we ingest.
We don't have to be superior athletes to live an active lifestyle. Showing our kids that any form of exercise (whether its a walk around the neighborhood, yoga at home, or a weightlifting session in the gym) is an important part of our daily life is a great way to encourage them to be active. Think about playing with them outside when you're home from work — it's good for both of you. As the Mayo Clinic points out, exercise doesn't only just help with weight management, it also gives us other benefits like improved mood, energy, and sleep.
An active lifestyle is often about momentum. If physical activity is part of a daily or weekly routine, it becomes difficult to not stay active.
Health In Body and Mind
While obesity is certainly a large problem in our country, so is disordered eating. Making sure that our children eat right also means helping them cultivate healthy attitudes around food and eating.
With this in mind, making strict family laws (e.g., “Our family never eats fast food”) is often a mistake. It's generally better to explain to your kids that a steady diet of fast food is unhealthy, but there's nothing wrong with an occasional burger and fries. When we don't make a big deal about certain choices, our kids won't have feelings of guilt around their eating. Better yet, they'll get the message that everything is better in moderation and that they are in control of their own eating habits. One of the things my father taught us was to always leave a bite — he never wanted us to clean our plate. Teaching us to leave something taught us self-control and food discipline at an early age, and this has stuck with all of my siblings to this date.
We also don't use the term “diet” in our home. Putting children on a diet is degrading and sets them up for failure when they put the weight back on again. Nearly all diet programs fail if they aren't part of a long-term vision of a healthy lifestyle. It's much better to focus on cultivating good habits over the long term than it is to encourage our child into the cycle of yo-yo dieting.
Better for All of Us
For some of us, maintaining a healthy lifestyle takes a lot of work. When we have the motivation to be healthy for our kids, then that work takes on significant meaning. Remember, wellness is not just about the absence of disease or physical condition, it involves the balance of our bodies, minds, emotions, and beliefs. When we make our nutrition and health a priority, however, the rest of the factors in that balance tend to follow along with it. And when we make our wellness a priority for ourselves, we're able to be better parents for our kids.
How does your family stay healthy and active? Tweet your tips @JeffOddo!