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Be a Healthy Role Model

5 ways to promote a healthy lifestyle for your kids

Parents striving to improve their eating and exercising habits may achieve extra benefits beyond weight loss and increased energy. Their teenagers may start to improve their own lifestyles as well.

"Without question, children watch what their parents do and are very responsive in their own actions," says Dr. Anne Kulze, a nationally recognized expert in nutrition. She points out that parents must be the primary role model for their children in all aspects of a healthy lifestyle, including eating the right foods and exercising. "Parents, peers and the media have the greatest influence on teens, and by far, parents have the most influence if they take advantage of it," she says. "Make healthy changes. You are missing out on an incredible opportunity if you do not."

Share Family Meals

Sharing family meals is a powerful way for parents to role model healthy choices. According to Dr. Kulze, studies show that families who regularly eat together at home consume more fruits and veggies and less calories and junk food than those who don't dine together or eat often at restaurants. Studies also show that teens who sit down and eat with their parents engage in less risky behavior, such as substance abuse and sexual promiscuity, than their peers who don't consistently share meals at home with Mom and Dad.

Aim to have family meals at least four to five days a week, but there's a value in two to three times a week too, says Dr. Kulze, the mother of four children. Her family eats together most days of the week, and she describes herself as an excellent cook.

Offer Healthy Choices

Along with sharing family meals, Dr. Kulze provides other tips for parents who want their teenagers to jump on the healthy family bandwagon. It's such a simple concept that most parents don't think about it: Don't bring junk food into the home. "Parents essentially control the food environment in the household," she says. Make sure the cupboard and the refrigerator are filled with healthy fare. If unwholesome choices aren't there, it's not an option.

"Involving teens in healthy food preparation has been shown to increase healthy eating," Dr. Kulze says. "Have them experience healthy food with all of their senses – seeing, tasting, touching, eating and smelling. I always involve my children in food preparation."

It can be a big challenge, but aim for five fruits and vegetables each day for children and seven to nine servings each day for adults, Dr. Kulze says. She also suggests that in addition to two servings of fruit at breakfast, you and your teens eat a fruit and/or a vegetable with lunch. At the family meal in the evening, two servings of vegetables can be served: a salad, as well as side dishes.

Eat Breakfast

Encourage your teen to eat breakfast as a healthy way to start their day. During research for her book, Thin People Don't Clean Their Plates: Simple Lifestyle Choices for Permanent Weight Loss, Jill Fleming, MS, RD, spent over 10,000 hours researching the lifestyle habits of those who are already thin and healthy.

"They all shared almost identical habits with people who are successful at losing weight and keeping it off, as reported by the National Weight Control Registry," Fleming says. Their common traits include eating breakfast almost every day. "Eating breakfast 'breaks the fast' from the night before to wake up the digestive system," Fleming says. "This speeds the metabolism. It is best to eat something within the first hour of waking up."

Dr. Kulze offers her children a colorful fresh fruit salad each morning, cut up and placed in appealing glass bowls. Children are very visual and are influenced by color and appearance. With a cup of orange juice and the salad, teens can easily meet two servings of fruit at breakfast time. "Start off the day with two servings," Dr. Kulze says. "Fresh fruit and breakfast is a perfect match."

Other shared traits of thin people, Fleming says, are that they eat a low-fat diet rich in whole grains, fruits and vegetables. "To lose weight, I recommend that you consume eight to 10 servings of fruits and vegetables," Fleming says. "You can easily reach this goal by consuming one smoothie and one large salad every day."

Exercise Together

Exercising regularly is another shared characteristic of thin people. "To increase the activity level of the overweight child or teenager, you must incorporate lifestyle activities into their day," says Fleming, who offers a few examples of how easy it is to increase a family's lifestyle activity:

  • Let the teenager walk or ride a bike for transportation, especially to and from school. Limit car rides to extreme temperatures or long distances.
  • Take a walk or bike ride together every night after dinner. Start out with a goal of 30 minutes. You get the added benefit of having a chance to talk to one another. Think of it as quality time for your family to connect.

Dr. Kulze and her husband exercise religiously and take family walks together almost every night. Their family keeps extremely active together – boating, tubing, running and participating in other activities.

Limit Screen Time

Choose exercising over television watching. Dr. Kulze and Fleming agree that limiting screen time, including television, computer and video playing, is a huge factor in achieving a healthy lifestyle. Dr. Kulze recommends keeping personal screen time to one hour per day.

"Research has found that children and teens that have more than two total hours of screen time per day are much more likely to be overweight or obese," Fleming says. "Overweight teens are also more likely to have a television in their bedrooms, which increases the average viewing time by 30 minutes."

Talking to Teens

"We underestimate our teens' motivation to be healthy," Dr. Kulze says. "When I talk to teens, they care a lot more than we realize. As a teenager, they often have a flippant attitude about life, so it's easy to assume they don't care. We misjudge them." Talking to your teen regularly about healthy eating and exercising does work, she says.

"Children and teens respond better to doing what is good or right versus avoiding or refraining from what's wrong or bad," Dr. Kulze says. In other words, focus on the positive when discussing health issues with your teenager. Say things like, "Fruits and vegetables are important. Work on eating more of these in your diet." Avoid statements like, "I don't want you to eat French fries any more."

The importance of healthy eating and exercising now for teenagers will affect their lives far into their adult years. Yet for teens, their mortality is too far removed from their reality. "Teens are motivated by feeling great, having energy and having better academic and sports performance," Dr. Kulze says. Parents need to learn "what pushes their buttons," and speak to their teenagers in terms of what would motivate them to eat better and to exercise more.

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CeReality: 5 Families, 5 Stories, 1 Critical Meal

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