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Teach Your Kids to be Healthy in 8 Steps

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Our diet and fitness expert shares tips on how to instill healthy eating and fitness habits in your child (without them knowing it!).

By JJ Virgin: A mother teaches her child many lessons, including stranger danger, looking twice before crossing the street, and keeping their tiny hands off a hot stove.

Another important life lesson that will serve your child for life is instilling healthy eating and fitness habits. A mother who sets their child on a course of picking fresh, wholesome foods and then revs everyone up to get moving is packing a one-two health punch.

I know you're saying, "But JJ, isn't it too late? Our family doesn't focus that much on eating right or moving. We're couch potatoes these days with a bag of burgers as dinner."

Never fear. It's not to late to turn it around and go healthy with a few great lessons.

Teach Your Kids to be Healthy in 8 Steps

1) Teach Them that You're the Food Boss

It's easy to avoid fast food places with young children. You're simply not going to go there. Unless your 5-year-old has his own set of car keys and knows how to drive, it will literally be impossible for him to hang out under the Golden Arches.

Quick funny story: A mom in Seattle watched her 4-year-old pitch a fit in the middle of the driveway, to the point that two neighbors ran over. At the top of his lungs, he screamed, "Help me! Help me! My mom won't take me to Taco Bell!" Yes, you might have to deal with a few meltdowns, but stay firm and the kids will know that fast food is the exception, not your daily fare.

2) Teach Them to Want Foods with Nutrients in Them

Many moms teach kids to figure out how many calories are in a certain food. This doesn't make sense to me. There are more calories in a piece of healthy baked chicken than a 100-calorie bag of chips. One is the healthy choice because it's packed with nutrients.

Sit down and explain to your kids that our bodies are a chemistry lab and need vitamins and minerals to grow and remain strong. Explain which foods are dense with these, and which are garbage foods with no vitamins or minerals. This will set up a lifetime habit of being aware of nutrients.

3) Teach Them to Read Labels

Yes, even small children can learn to read labels to figure out the value of foods. Is this food full of those vitamins and minerals we just discussed, or is it packed with chemicals we can't even pronounce that are bad for us?

Remind them: We don't eat chemicals. Yuck. We eat real food. Take your children into the produce aisle and explain that these natural foods don't even need labels because they're extremely healthy choices.

4) Change Your Child's Taste Buds

I know a wonderful mom who simply didn't give her son cookies, cake, doughnuts, etc., at all when he was a little boy. They were alien foods to him. Instead, she developed his taste buds to love the sweetness of a ripe blueberry or the tartness of a crunchy fall apple. If you keep sugar out of the home, your children won't crave it. You can also teach that sugar is a once-in-a-long-time treat, such as at a birthday party. Your goal is to not make processed sugar a daily part of their eating plan. Do this by developing their tastes for natural sweetness and tartness.

5) Don't Equate Going Out with Snacking

I know moms who bring a pantry's worth of treats every time they put their young child in a stroller for 20 minutes. This is not the Great Depression. No one is going to starve on the way to the park. Stop! Don't teach your child that they can't survive without constant snacking. If your child ate a good breakfast and lunch, she doesn't need to eat pretzels and crackers all afternoon. Most of these snacks have zero nutritional quality. This non-stacking rule is a great way to help your children eat meals because they'll actually be hungry and not constantly graze all day long.

6) Schedule Your Active Time

Most harried moms have to figure out how to find time for a shower. It's easy to let the day pass without any real active time, where you get out there and move with your kids. Just like going to the dentist or the doctor, you need to actually schedule this time in your family's planner. Take it seriously, and never miss your fitness appointments. Remember, your kids are modeling what you are doing -- if you are moving more, so will they!

7) Make Moving Fun

It's great to have a family gym membership and schedule time to go there as a group. But that can get a bit boring and feel like drudgery. It's much more fun to plan family events that involve moving. Go hiking in the woods, rent those rowboats, or participate in your town's walk-a-thon for a charity. You want to make fitness your lifestyle and teach your kids that moving is fun, and a great way for the entire family to enjoy each other's company.

8) Teach Them Not to Make Excuses

Explain to your child that life is all about priorities, and being healthy is their number-one job. Remind them that if they take care of their health, then they can be anything ... or do anything.

next: One Million Window Covers Recalled for Risks to Children
196 comments so far | Post a comment now
tennmom October 28, 2009, 6:47 AM

My older daughter (11)is very good about trying new fruits & veggies. She will choose a single-serve sized can of carrots and sliced cucumber for a snack.
My younger child (9)would eat any fruit or veggie I gave her until 2 years ago. Today, that child will not touch any form of any plant-life, won’t even drink juice. I have to “hide” sweet potatos & carrots in her spaghetti sauce.
Does anyone have any advice?

Tammy October 28, 2009, 8:07 AM

I agree with most of the suggestions. Although, I have to say that I do allow my 3 y/o to have healthy snacks between meals, even when we do have a “good” (in what sense?) breakfast and lunch. I don’t prepare 3 large (does that mean “good”) meals a day. We eat smaller main meals with snack in between to sustain our activity levels through out the day.

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