Monkey see, monkey do. Turn everyday situations into opportunities to teach your children about healthy living

By: Alyssa Wells 

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7 Healthy Habits to Pass on to Your Kids Intro

With 1 in 3 children and teens considered overweight or obese in the United States, it’s time to do something, and doctors agree that parents need to take the lead when it comes to educating children about staying healthy: Up to 90% of doctors agree that weight is the most important health topic for parents to discuss with their children, even more than safe sex, cigarette smoking, drug use, and alcohol consumption, according to the 2011 Raising Fit Kids survey by WebMD and Sanford Health. In addition to having an open dialogue, it’s important to lead by example. “Kids definitely take on the behaviors of their parents,” says Susan Bartell, PhD, a parenting and child psychologist in New York. To set your child on the right path, turn everyday activities like dinnertime, playtime, or grocery shopping into real-life lessons on health, nutrition, and fitness. Here’s how.

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Leave Some Food on the Plate

In an attempt to make sure they don’t miss out on any nutrients, many parents ask kids to clean their plates, making them more likely to overeat later in life, says Sarah Krieger, RD, spokesperson for the American Dietetics Association and director of the Fit 4 All Kids program at All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, FL. If your kids say they’re not hungry, wrap up their plates, says Krieger, but make them stay at the table until the rest of the family finishes (to avoid a situation in which they choose playtime over full tummy). And if they’re hungry later, warm up the plate of food instead of offering a snack.

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Recognize the Difference between Hunger and Boredom

Even if you had to tape a stop sign on your fridge to get there, you learned to give yourself time to decide if you’re hungry or just need to pick up a hobby. Children shouldn’t have free access to the snack drawer, says Krieger, and should ask parents for permission to have a snack. “The first thing parents should offer is a piece of fruit and a reminder of the time for the next meal,” she says. If children are actually hungry, they’ll take the fruit. If they’re bored, they’ll wait until dinner.

Related: 13 Healthy Life Lessons to Teach Your Kids

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Don’t Use Food as a Reward

Congratulating yourself with a sweet treat after a day of healthy eating is a little bit nuts. Rewards should help you work toward your goal—not against it, says Bronco. And making dessert—or anything edible—the pot of gold at the end of the eating rainbow could affect your child’s food preferences. One study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that children who were rewarded with stickers for eating sweet red peppers consumed fewer pieces of the vegetable and had greater dislike for it than children who were told only that they could eat as much as they wanted. In other words, there’s a chance you could turn your child off broccoli if eating it puts him on the fast track to a brownie. If an after-dinner treat is standard in your household, downplay dessert by serving sweet, in-season fruit and small cookies only a few times a week, says Krieger.

Related: 6 Ways to Reward Weight Loss Success—without Using Food

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Avoid Distracted Eating

Multitasking while you munch can lead to unwanted extra pounds. Distracted eaters—like those who surf the web or watch TV—have a hard time recalling what they eat, are less likely to feel satiated, and more likely to consume extra calories throughout the day, according to a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Good advice for adults and youngsters alike: Eat only when sitting at the table. No iPods, cell phones, or gaming systems allowed—just food and family. This helps encourage mindful eating, says Michael Bronco, a personal trainer and owner of Bronco’s Gym in Madison, NJ.

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Stick to the List When You Go Grocery Shopping

Experts agree that shopping with a list helps you avoid fattening impulse buys and guarantees you have all the ingredients you need to make healthy meals. Get the kiddos involved in the grocery shopping by helping you compile the list, says Bronco. Make columns for proteins, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and ask your children to make recommendations for foods they’d like to eat that fit each category. It’s a great way to learn about the food groups and get familiar with the healthy options that fill them. It also doesn’t hurt that your kids get the sense that they “chose” the peas rather than feeling like victims of the vegetables on their plates.

Related: Your Farmers’ Market Shopping List

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Read Food Labels

Sneaky sugars and sodium can transform a seemingly harmless item into a diet disaster—that’s why reading nutrition labels is crucial to healthy grocery shopping. Turn a trip to the market into a nutritional scavenger hunt by asking reading-age children to find cereals with less than 8 g of sugar, canned soup with less than 300 mg of sodium, or a loaf of bread that clearly states it’s 100% whole grain. They’ll learn how to navigate a nutrition panel and be too busy to complain that the sleeve of cookies they wanted didn’t make it into the cart.

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Find a Workout You Enjoy

Let’s face it, if you hate the gym you’re not going to go—and the same goes for your kids and soccer practice. “The adults who are most successful with their workouts found something they really love doing,” says Bronco. “It’s worth it to find an activity that your kid really loves, and if it becomes not so fun anymore, try something else. I think if you get too strict about sticking with one sport and it becomes a chore, you run the risk of turning your child off fitness completely.” When people are having fun, they stop worrying about how many calories they’re burning.

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Lifestyle and Weight Management Specialist
Certified Nutrition Coach and Nutrition for Metabolic Health Specialist. Since 2006, I have helped thousands of clients and readers make lifestyle habit changes that helps you to achieve better long-term health, which includes body transformation and ideal body weight.
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