A lifetime of diet and exercise habits is influenced by what happens at home in your children’s earliest years. Once a child is ready for preschool, you can start having real conversations with him or her about food, fitness and how important both are to their well-being. Later, you can bring in elements of physical, mental and family health. The most important thing is to create a culture of good health in your home, as well as the communication and support individuals may need when it comes to things like weight, allergies and other concerns.
The Earliest Years
By the time a child is four, many habits are already in place. As kids enter preschool, they will be introduced to new foods and begin making their own decisions about what they eat. They will also get time on the playground or in the gym. It’s important to continue the healthy habits you have at home, such as family dinners and physical activity. Further, stay tuned into what your child’s teachers talk about when it comes to health and enforce it at home. For example, a popular approach is to talk about “eating the rainbow,” or getting complete nutrition by eating foods of varying colors. Begin to involve young children in selecting fruits, vegetables and new healthy foods at the grocery store. Find out what athletic games kids are learning about in early elementary school and try them out in your own basement or backyard.
Entering the Pre-Teen Years
While it varies from child to child, most kids will begin to notice changes in their bodies by the time they reach later elementary school. Perhaps their appetites will increase with growth spurts, or they may even sense an uptick in strength. Although simple carbohydrates, cheese and TV might be alluring, kids need to support their growth with healthy food and physical activity. Parents continue to set an example, even if kids are becoming more independent. Get kids to help in the kitchen, trying out the stove and prepping fresh fruits and vegetables. Helping with menu planning is a great way to get them involved in nutrition at this stage, even if they are only picking the side dishes. It lays the foundation for later food choices and empowers them in making healthy selections. For exercise, consider organized sports or dance classes. Of course, dance parties after dinner are a great way to get the whole family involved!
Moving Toward Adulthood
Hormonal changes are in full swing, and kids might want to skip family dinner to hang out with their friends. This is when more than a decade of healthy habits might face some real push back, but will maintain a great foundation for a lifetime of health. Weight gain is common in girls and boys, and it is wise to discourage fad diets and expensive fitness classes that might do more harm than good. Foster an ongoing conversation about the diversity of healthy bodies, and the unrealistic portrayals in pop culture. Above all, talk about balance! Teenagers are going to eat pizza, choose the Internet over family dance parties and experience mood swings. Allow them to figure out what works for their bodies while also letting them be “normal” kids. In the meantime, make your home en example of health by having quality snacks and dinners on a regular basis. At this stage, offer your child the opportunity to create a weekly menu for the family. For exercise, mention how mind-clearing a solitary run can be, or how yoga relieves stress. Most importantly, be there when they have questions.
The Right Foundation Will Last a Lifetime
You don’t have to obsess over everything your kids eat or schedule exercise into every week. As long as you visibly value your own health with delicious food and fun activity, and as early as their very first years, they will have the right foundation to adopt their own good habits. Maybe someday they will cook you a fantastic dinner, or talk you into that aerobics class.