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Good Health Habits Kids Can Build Now – Part I

There are some things that if we get right, we can set ourselves up for good things down the road. Good health habits are one of those things. At the very least, we reduce the likelihood for nasty, annoying, or avoidable things to occur. A lot of these things are a matter of habit and the earlier we start the better. I’m building a series of posts here on Tweenable covering seven good health habits kids can build now for a healthier life. When it comes to habits more is caught than taught and these habits are never too early or late to start. Our first habit will be covering the most important part of a healthy diet…

Eating Fruits and Vegetables

One thing I will never forget is when I was in college, there was a girl who lived in my dorm who never succumbed to the horrible college diet my friends and I did. She ate so healthily. I never saw her eat a meal that didn’t have produce. One day I asked her what her secret was and she told me that her mom had always prepared healthy meals for as long as she could remember and she assured me she was just continuing what she learned at home. I think about it to this day as I am feeding my own family now. Not only did her mom talk the talk, she walked the walk. And the impact was her daughter continued when she left home while other kids were packing on their Freshman 15.

When it comes to our health, what we eat has the biggest impact on our results. At the foundation of a healthy lifestyle are eating enough fruits and vegetables. USDA recommends 5 daily servings of fruits and vegetables. Unfortunately, meeting the recommended daily intake of fruits and vegetables is the area of our diets that most of us struggle with. Only 10% of us meet this goal.

Let’s break it down and come up with a game plan to make sure our family gets enough. If we don’t eat many now, going from where we are now to 5 a day can be overwhelming. But there are two primary methods we can use; we could implement a meal formula and we can increase our intake gradually in order to meet our goal.

Formula method:

Say we need a minimum of 2 fruits and 3 vegetables a day. That already sounds better to me than 5 fruits/veggies a day.

Then we can break it down further and say we need 1 fruit at breakfast, 1 fruit for a snack, 1 vegetable at lunch, and 2 vegetables at dinner. Whoa, two vegetables at dinner? Sure, a vegetable like broccoli and a side salad or a salad with multiple vegetables with dinner. You could add a handful of blueberries to cereal, an apple for a snack, baby carrots at lunch and you’ve met the requirement.

Another formula is 1 fruit and 1 vegetable for breakfast, 1 fruit/veggie for a snack, 1 veggie at lunch, 1 veggie for dinner. This could look like a smoothie or add spinach to scrambled eggs and serve strawberries with breakfast, celery with peanut butter for a snack, salad with dried fruit for lunch, string beans with dinner. You’ve met it again.

The combination can vary. But overall if you eat 5 times/day aim for a serving each time. Formulas or rules of thumb help us remember and take some of the mental work out of creating habits.

Gradual Increase Method:

Whatever we are doing now, we can challenge our selves to add 1 serving per day for the week. The following week we can increase it 1 serving a day and repeat until we are where we need to be. In the course of a little over one month, we can improve our diets and our health and meet our goal of 5 servings.

One way to do this is to add a side salad to dinner every day. Advance preparation reduces overwhelm and saves time. Prepare salad ingredients at the start of the week and store the ingredients separately in airtight containers. Then each night, your family can create their own salads from your homemade “salad bar” or you can quickly throw everything together.

This one method has the potential of boosting your intake 1 to 2 servings and may be all you need. But if it doesn’t quite get you there make a plan to reach for a piece of fruit or cut up veggies whenever you get hungry and munch on them before you reach for other things. If you’re still hungry, you can still have what you want. We don’t need to take anything away, rather we are going to crowd out the junk that’s crept into our lives.

Get the Kids Involved

But since our focus in on how kids can build this habit, we need to get them engaged in the process. As I learned from my friend in college, kids learn by seeing and doing. Here are some ways to engage them in the process:

Make a list of their favorites. My kids like strawberries, blueberries, bananas, apples, mandarines, peaches and grapes for fruit. Their favorite veggies include tomatoes, asparagus, broccoli, peas, corn on the cob, raw carrots, romaine lettuce, and spinach. I try to include these foods as often as possible in our meals.

Include them in the meal planning process. Talk to and ask your kids for their input in the meal plan for the week before going grocery shopping. I do this with my kids. I’ll ask them what should we eat? If there’s a gap, I’ll ask, which fruit do you want with your snacks or which vegetable should we eat with the barbeque chicken?

Take them with you shopping and let them pick fruits and vegetables. This is great to do if you can shop with your kids without a bunch of impulse buying. Everyone should maybe eat a piece of fruit as a snack before so no one goes shopping hungry. The benefit of taking kids with is teaching about what is in season, what prices are reasonable, and how to pick produce that’s ready to eat. In addition, kids learn the process of making a list, going the store, picking up all the items, paying and bringing the groceries home. If you’re not able to take them shopping with you, consider letting them recommend and add items to the list.

Offer fruits and vegetables first when they come to you saying they are hungry. Growing kids seem to be hungry all the time. I have a thing in my house, where I tell my kids they can eat fruits and veggies anytime they are hungry, they do not have to ask. But if they want chips, cookies, or anything else, they need to ask. I use it as an opportunity to ask them about their fruit/veggie intake up until that point. If they are on track, I allow them to enjoy a less healthy option but if they are off track, I remind them of the healthier options we have available.

Try new recipes together. We especially enjoy making smoothies. Smoothies can be an excellent way to get fruits and veggies into our diet. When we find a winner recipe, we will sometimes create single serving smoothie packs. Throw everything needed for the smoothie in a freezer bag. Then when needed all you have to do is pull it out the freezer, thaw in water for a few minutes, toss in your blender with your liquid of choice and blend. It makes a great snack or a quick breakfast.

Help them keep track of what they’ve eaten. This one can be tricky because we don’t want to introduce dieting in the sense of restricting calories to kids. It’s unnecessary and can be dangerous because it can damage kids’ relationship with food. But, it’s known that people who track what they eat are more successful at eating healthily. For kids and even for adults, I think we can get the benefit of tracking without the downside by simply having a goal to eat five a day and check them off. This type of feedback is super helpful when setting a goal and/or trying to establish a habit.

Let them help prepare and serve foods. Children are more eager to eat foods they help pick and prepare. We covered picking in the earlier tips. Now to focus on preparing and serving foods. Bring them into the kitchen, teach and let them wash the fruits and veggies. If they are old enough, teach and let them learn to slice or chop veggies. If you can prep fruits and veggies, having them ready to eat increases chances to eat them. Prepare a couple of to-go packs for a quick grab and go and let kids help. This way, they also know how to do this for themselves. They can prepare their own snacks.

Pick your battles and keep it simple. At meal times allow them to serve themselves. There will be fewer battles and less waste.  If you find they’re in a rut without a lot of variety, offer them a food and tell them they just have to try it, if they don’t like it they don’t have to finish it. It can take a few times offering a new food before kids like it. Introduce only one or two new foods at a time and offer lots of their favorites. If needed, go ahead and offer less healthy sauces or condiments to enhance flavor. It’s better for them to develop a belief that they like fruits and veggies than for them to conclude they don’t like them and avoid them altogether.

A Great Beginning…

So we’ve covered one of the most important health habits kids can start now, getting in their fruits and veggies. Start where you are and do one thing this week to improve your family’s eating habits. Join me next week for the rest of the series, including six more habits that will give kids a headstart and serve them well into adulthood.

Be sure to check out this video of some great kid-friendly smoothie recipes:

Tell me in the comments, how do you help your kids build healthy eating habits? What are you going to try to get this going or keep it going? If you have any questions about this habit and what we do, feel free to leave them in the comments and I’ll do what I can to help you out.

Thanks for reading and see you next time.

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Nicole

2 Comments

  1. Hi Nicole,
    Great article on good heath habits for kids. Good eating is right at the top of my list as well.
    Being a dad to 2 teenage girls has it’s fair share of challenges. One of them is certainly working with them to eat right.
    Personally I have a been a huge fan of health and eating well rounded for a long time. When my daughters were younger I actually had better success with them eating fairly well. I did the gradual increase method and it worked well. Once my girls got to the age that they could pretty much make things for themselves or go with their friends to buy fast food things went downhill quickly.
    I do still have some success when we cook something together. As an added bonus I get to spend more time with them.
    Great article!.
    Mat A.

    • Hi Mark. I think you’ve got a great foundation set with your girls. Hanging out with friends and eating junk is something that goes with their age right now.  Thanks to the example and foundation you’ve laid and that you’re still cooking with them I have all confidence they will settle into eating healthy long term. Keep doing what you’re doing. You’re doing great. 

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