You can help your child establish healthy behaviour, eating and activity habits from birth. If these habits are established early as part of your family’s lifestyle – a natural part of the way you do things – you won’t have to bring in unpopular ‘rules’ later.
Maintaining healthy habits from the start can help your whole family avoid lifestyle problems that can occur later in life, such as overweight and obesity, type-2 diabetes, types of cancer and high blood pressure.
Here are 12 tips to help you and your family with a healthy lifestyle.
Promote healthy eating in your home
Children are more likely to develop healthy eating behaviours when they’re given a choice of healthy foods at home, so put healthy foods on your shopping list and prepare nutritional meals and snacks for the whole family. Having fewer unhealthy foods (like soft drinks, chips, lollies and snack bars) in your cupboard means you won’t have to ‘police’ what your children eat.
As a family, remind yourselves of the basic foods
These are fruit, vegetables, wholegrain cereals, lean meats and fish, and low-fat dairy foods. Make your shopping list from these groups so it will be easier to prepare family meals that include them.
You could put up a poster that summarises this information in your
kitchen or on your fridge – you and your child could make the poster
together. Check out our illustrated guide to food portions
Be aware of serving size
This way you can prepare suitable amounts of food for your family. Preparing the right amount discourages you from coming back for seconds or putting too much on your plates. Children who are allowed to follow their own appetite will generally choose the right amount of food for their needs.
Make a distinction between ‘everyday’ and ‘sometimes’ foods
‘Everyday’ food is the healthy stuff, whereas ‘sometimes’ food is the not-so-healthy stuff that’s high in fat or sugar and doesn’t have many essential nutrients. You might enjoy this kind of food, but eat it only occasionally. Talk to your child about the difference between ‘everyday’ and ‘sometimes’ food.
Establish healthy eating routines
Healthy eating isn’t only about food choices – it’s also about eating on a regular, predictable basis in a social way. For example, it’s important to:
- eat breakfast every day
- eat regular meals and several snacks throughout the day
- eat meals together at the table or kitchen bench, rather than in front of the TV (many parents also find mealtimes are more pleasant and less stressful when the TV is off)
- allow enough time so meals can be eaten in a relaxed and unhurried way.
Praise children when they choose healthy foods
You can also remind them of the benefits of healthy eating. Try to avoid nagging or making eating a battle or power struggle. You’re more likely to encourage healthy habits by making mealtimes fun – you can do this by giving your younger child some positive feedback (sometimes called descriptive praise). For example, you could try saying, ‘Wow, you picked a banana for morning tea! Delicious’. You could also say things like, ‘Drinking milk helps keep your bones strong’.
Involve your older child in making healthy lunch box and snack selections. Encourage him to prepare these foods by himself, and ask him to help you prepare family meals. Have a variety of healthy foods available for your child to choose from, so you don’t have to worry about his choices.
7. Make physical activity part of everyday life
Many people think being active means playing sport or doing strenuous exercise, but that’s only one way of being active. For example, you can encourage your child to walk instead of taking the car a short distance, walk the dog instead of watching TV, and use stairs instead of lifts or escalators in shopping centres. Be a role model and choose being active to show your child how easy it can be. Take a moment to notice and comment when your child chooses everyday physical activity.
You can also encourage everyday physical activity by saying things like:
- ‘It’s time to play outside now.’
- ‘The dog needs some practice fetching. It’d be great if you could go outside and throw the ball to her.’
- ‘Let’s walk to the shop.’
- ‘Wow, you’ve been jumping on the trampoline for ages.’
- ‘You did a fantastic job pulling the weeds out of the garden. It’s great when you help.’
- ‘You rode a really long way on your bike today. Well done!’
Video Fitness and health
In this short video, parents and teenagers discuss the importance of a healthy lifestyle, family sports, and the types of daily activity that keep them active.
Enjoy physical activity as a family
You could ride bikes together, or have a family visit to the park to throw a frisbee or kick a football. Talk about these as fun activities rather than exercise. Outdoor play is generally more active than indoor play, so make the most of outdoor time.
Give children – older children especially – opportunities to try different sports and ways to be active
This could include various sports or activities at school or outside school hours. If your child can find a sport or activity she really enjoys, you won’t need to push her to be active (on the other hand, sometimes children who are forced to exercise or participate in activities they don’t enjoy can develop a negative attitude to physical activity). Support your child by watching her play, and make it easy for her to take part by taking her to games and training. This is great encouragement and can increase the likelihood she’ll stay involved.
You can read more in our article on encouraging a positive attitude to sport.
Limit the time your child spends on screen-based activities
This includes time spent watching TV and DVDs, and playing computer and other electronic games. Our article on screen time and children has current Australian guidelines on screen time for children of different ages.
11. Encourage your child to value his body for what it can do, rather than how it looks
Try not to draw too much attention to your child’s weight, even if you’re worried about it. If you discuss weight with your child, use terms like ‘healthiest weight’, rather than ‘overweight’, ‘obese’ or even ‘fat’. A healthy body image is especially important for teenagers, who might be thinking a lot about how their body looks.
12. Set a good example
Parents who have a healthy diet and are physically active are much more likely to encourage the same habits in their children. Keep in mind the power of modelling – your child learns mostly from what you do yourself, not from what you tell her to do. Practise what you preach!