We parents often think how to encourage our children to make healthy choices. Healthy choices do not need to be difficult or unpleasant, they can take the form of joint efforts, ideas, achievements and learning experiences for the whole family. What should you remember when you are learning and practising health skills as a family? We’ve put together 10 tips. Try finding something among them that suits your family, and test it.
1. Do things together. As a parent, you can influence your child’s choices by setting an example. The parents have the last word in many family issues, but when learning health skills, it is worth involving the children right away. What does each family member value in the family? What skills should we learn together next? What would children like to practise, and how should they do it? Even small children can think of ways to exercise more or watch less TV or tell mum and dad what they should cut down on.
“We have a family meeting once a month. Everyone can tell what they like and don’t like about our family. We then put forward ideas about the future. Our children have made quite good observations about how we as parents act in certain situations.”
2. Make eating fun. Maintaining orderliness at the table is not always easy. But if the atmosphere stays mainly positive and encouraging, it will be easier to learn new things. Little tricks won’t take much time and effort but will liven up the repetitiveness associated with eating and bring something special to daily routines. Instead of forbidding things and giving orders, tell your child what he/she is able and allowed to do.
The following tips will add a little excitement to mealtimes.
- Organize a pirate feast and line the table with newspapers. Let the children taste foods such as fish and tropical fruit with their fingers without using any plates. Play pirate music in the background.
- Serve colour-coordinated theme meals! What else that is orange could you serve with sweet potato soup, carrot bread, cheddar cheese and oranges? On a pink day, serve spaghetti and porridge coloured pink with beetroot pesto.
- Arranging foods on the plate in the form of a rainbow will attract children to taste varied fruit and vegetables. Searching for red, orange, yellow, green and purple fruit and veggies in the supermarket is like hunting for treasure. Encourage children to taste as many different coloured foods as they dare!
- Is it ok to play with food? Can you form on everyone’s plate a face, a car or a landscape from food? “Shall we make a mouth from a stick of carrot or cherry tomatoes?”
- Give a familiar food a new name. Spinach soup tastes better as “monster power soup”.
3. Take small steps to get results. Changing old habits all at once is rarely successful. Children like familiar ways and adopt new ones through repetition. Start from small things and proceed little by little. “This week, I’ll concentrate on giving positive feedback on my child’s behaviour at the table. Next week, I’ll encourage my child to hold, smell or taste a new vegetable daily (and I’ll do it myself too).” Remember to enjoy it. Not everyone will like absolutely everything, but it might be fun to try achieving it. “Do you remember mum’s face when she tasted lemon?”
4. Find time for family exercise. Make time for family exercise by simplifying your life. Check your calendar to find possible times when you can exercise. Are the weekends the most suitable times, or can you find time for family exercise in the evenings during the week? Family exercise doesn’t need to be planned meticulously. Sometimes you can just dress according to the weather and head outside.
5. It pays to plan things. Try planning a menu for the coming week beforehand, and there will be less panicky moments when confronting an empty fridge. Maintaining orderliness is tough if everyone is starving. Creating a menu and shopping list might be frustrating at first, but as weeks pass, you can start recycling the old menus or vary them a little. Try cooking at weekends and freezing foods for the busy week-day evenings. Let the children have their say in the food choices too! The Heart Symbol website offers great everyday recipes.
6. Experiment boldly. Offer children a chance to try different forms of exercise so they can find their favourites themselves. To motivate children to exercise, you need to do more than just remind them that exercise is good for you. Could you make exercise as fun and exciting as playing? How can you play and exercise as a family? In the kitchen too, offer children a chance to taste different foods but let them find their favourites themselves.
7. Have family traditions. Family routines and habits are important for children. Traditions make events feel special and exciting, and they arouse eager anticipation and feelings of security and continuity. What kinds of special moments does your family enjoy, and how, if necessary, could they be made more healthy?
“Our family has its very own, wonderful Christmas tradition. After the Christmas Eve rice porridge, we walk together to the cemetery to light a candle at my grandmother’s grave. Even though our children are already teenagers, they want to hold on to this tradition.”
8. Limit screen time. Agreeing to limit screen time applies to both children and adults. Read more about controlling the flood of different stimuli here.
9. Encourage and reward children for achievements. Small rewards make the learning of new habits more pleasant. Give positive feedback by complimenting and encouraging the child. Instead of rewarding children with sweets, give them something that’s a bit more special. How about a family night playing board games or listening to the child’s favourite music? Remember that parents also deserve a reward.
10. Choose the right tips for the family from the flood of information. Planning concrete objectives for your family is easier when you can refer to professional information and tips. The Smart Family website offers tips for the parents of a fussy vegetable eater as well as information about a child’s appropriate eating rhythm and the significance of talking positively about food. The aim is not to make perfect health choices but to practise and learn new habits that are suitable for your family.
Tips modified from those on the website of the American Heart Association