10 Tips to Establish Healthy Habits in Children
It's no mystery that children learn through example, which means parents or caregivers set their standards for healthy habits. By instilling healthy habits in your kids, you're helping their development in childhood while setting them up for a healthier adulthood. Here are the best ways to foster habits that strengthen your children's physical and psychological well-being:
1. Eat Healthy Family Meals
A study published in the journal Pediatrics found that participation in more family meals correlated to better nutritional health in children. Children and adolescents in the study who participated in fewer family meals were more likely to have unhealthy eating habits, as well as eating disorders. Interestingly, even infants and toddlers were found to have better nutritional intakes when routinely eating with their families.
Set a regular dinner schedule that works for everyone. Be sure to eliminate distractions like TV and phones during dinner. Aim to eat breakfast with your kids before they go to school, and if you have little ones at home, you can sit down at the table with them for lunch.
2. Don't Make Food a Reward
Healthy eating habits and exercise go a long way in supporting your child's mental health and emotional development. Avoid using food as a reward system for your kids, as it can disrupt their development of healthy eating habits. Research published in Frontiers in Public Health found that using candy or dessert as "bribes" or rewards for wanted behavior can be detrimental to children's ability to make healthy food choices.
3. Talk Nutrition with Kids
Replace processed foods and snacks in your pantry and fridge with fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and other whole foods. If you're ordering takeout frequently, find some recipes and get your kids involved in preparing and cooking meals. Talk about what's healthy about the different foods you're eating and the components that make them healthy—including fiber, vitamins, minerals, protein, and so forth.
4. Set a Daily Goal for Water Intake
Gamify water drinking to instill good hydration habits and give kids the experience of goal setting and following through. Children ages four to eight need about five cups of water a day, while older children need seven to eight to stay hydrated. Make sure your child gets these amounts at a minimum by having her keep tally on a whiteboard. Apps like Plant Nanny can easily gamify water drinking for your kids and keep track.
5. Get Outside
Getting vitamin D, fresh air, and exposure to nature is important. According to research, exercising outdoors in a green environment can lower symptoms of ADHD and improve emotional regulation in children.
Get the whole family involved on an outdoor adventure or learning a new sport. It gives you the chance to be a role model by getting active yourself. Go outside for a walk or a bike ride. Or, head to a park and invite your kids' friends. Create a competition, like a race or an obstacle course.
6. Make Exercise Routine
Exercise isn't just critical for weight management in children but also for strengthening bones as they grow. In medical studies that date back to the 1960s, exercise has been found to improve academic performance in children. More recent research has linked regular exercise in children with lower rates of mental health conditions such as ADHD and anxiety.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends children over six engage in an hour or more of physical activity, such as aerobic exercise or rock climbing, at least three days a week. Pencil in regular activities ahead of time that get kids moving, whether a weekly kids yoga class or even a weekly dance party at home.
7. Limit Screen Time
Set a limit on time spent using screens, whether it's video games or TV. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) suggests limiting screen time outside of school work to between one and two hours per day. Using a parental controls app is the best way to track and manage free time spent on a tablet or Roku. Avoid screen time 30 minutes before bed. According to the National Sleep Foundation, LED lights before sleep are known to disrupt the circadian rhythm and affect bedtime.
8. Encourage Creative Activities
Creative outlets like drawing and music can be therapeutic for children. Experts believe art reverses psychological conditions and even improves health outcomes. Creative expression also supports cognitive development and can help you learn more about your child's internal experience.
9. Talk About Emotions
By talking with your child and listening to them each day, you can carry forward an ongoing conversation about emotions and how to manage them. Acknowledge your child's emotions when they express them; naming feelings helps kids learn about emotions. Offer suggestions for coping with feelings, such as resolving a conflict or taking a time-out to color or read.
10. Teach Deep Breathing
Deep breathing goes a long way in helping kids calm down by slowing the central nervous system. Early on, learning to blow bubbles or blow on a pinwheel can help. You can also invite young kids to use their imagination and "smell" a pizza with a deep breath. Once they get the hang of it, encourage the habit of counting out three deep breaths to cope with feeling angry or nervous.
Healthy Habits Start Young
Be patient with your kids as you work on healthy habits with them, and remember perfection isn't required for progress. Kids are always watching our habits, so setting an example is as important as enforcing healthy habits. Exercising with your kids, sitting down for healthy, balanced meals with them, and getting them involved in cooking and talking about nutrition are the best ways to prepare children for a healthier future.