Health is complicated, but simple basics can make a big difference. How and what we eat, how well we sleep and how much we move are important. Use these healthy parenting tips to help your family be well in 2015.
Forget gluten free, paleo and cutting carbs. Eating right means slowing down. “I would like to see families take more time to prepare meals at home,” says Amy Childress, RD, director of nutrition services at Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena. Families that cook at home are more likely to make better food choices, according to Childress, and there are other benefits as well.
“With technology, many parents and kids are eating in their rooms, their desks, while surfing the net, or in front of the TV,” says Melissa Halas-Liang, MA, RD, founder of SuperKids Nutrition Inc. But great family discussions often take place during cooking and mealtime.
Get inspired by taking time to hunt for fun recipes together and making a weekly menu plan. Childress suggests dedicating an hour you would otherwise spend watching TV, and recommends FoodNetwork.com, which has a section of recipes kids can make, kid-friendly meals and weeknight meals; and The Meal Makeover Moms (www.mealmakeovermoms.com) podcast, app and website created by two dietician moms who do “makeovers” of “kid food” including fish sticks, burgers and chicken nuggets. SuperKids Nutrition (www.superkidsnutrition.com), founded by Halas-Liang, includes meal tips and other information from more than 200 nutrition experts.
But good eating is about more than just dinner. Halas-Liang’s go-to healthy breakfast is fresh or frozen fruit with plain, nonfat yogurt, walnuts and cinnamon. Childress likes oatmeal with almond milk and fruit, or protein smoothies.
For lunches, both Childress and Halas-Liang suggest packing up leftovers from dinner. “An important tip for busy parents is to choose dishwasher-safe containers for easy cleaning,” says Halas-Liang. Keep whole fruit such as apples and oranges on hand to add, or take time on the weekend to cut veggies such as celery and carrots into serving-size pieces.
Jennifer Waldburger, founder of the Sleepy Planet sleep consultation service in Santa Monica, says there is more than one kind of nutrition. “Sleep nutrition” is what she calls a person’s daily dose, because she says sleep is as important as food.
Good sleep starts with a consistent, soothing bedtime routine and a room that is cool and quiet with the proper lighting. “Artificial light is an activating signal to your child’s circadian rhythm,” says Heather Turgeon, an L.A.-based psychotherapist, mom of two and co-author of “The Happy Sleeper” (Tarcher/Penguin, 2014). Turgeon recommends dimming the lights about an hour before bedtime, and paying attention to the type of lightbulbs you purchase. Many newer bulbs produce a cooler, bluer light that is too stimulating. Warmer bulbs, labeled “2700 Kelvins” or “warm white,” create soothing light closer to old-fashioned incandescent bulbs.
If your child wakes often at night, work to build their independence. “If they’re having bad dreams or nightmares, you need to comfort them,” says Ashish Patel, M.D., medical director of the sleep center at Huntington Hospital, but transition them back to their own bed rather than letting them climb into yours. Turgeon also suggests daytime “rehearsals” so younger kids are able to find their glass of water or pull up the covers on their own. “We all wake up at night,” she says. “The question is, can we put ourselves back into a deep sleep.”
To make sure you’re well-rested as well, think about what time you need to get up (or what time the kids will wake you) in the morning, then plan your bedtime. And try not to think of sleep as something you have to do, but as something you get to do – like a free spa treatment. “You’ starting from a better point,” Turgeon says, “to handle anything that comes up the next day.”
Making play a habit is the key to getting your well-nourished, well-rested family moving. Get your start by asking your kids what they would like to do. “The biggest thing with kids is finding something they enjoy,” says John Skoryna, owner and CEO of Lionheart Fitness Kids, which brings fun kids’ sports programs to schools, parks and community organizations across L.A. And parent participation is essential.
Start with something that doesn’t require special skills or equipment. Get outside and take a walk together, ride bikes or shoot hoops in the driveway. Having a good time is key, but following the rules isn’t. “Don’t get hung up on whether they’re doing the activity right,” says Skoryna. “Just get out there and have fun.”
To keep the fun going, though, you need a plan – especially if your family has a busy schedule. Skoryna recommends setting aside 30 minutes a day for active time, or even just 20 minutes if 30 seems like too much. This shows your kids that fitness is important to you, and Skoryna says that initial 20 or 30 minutes will likely grow. “I really think that kids and families will start to enjoy it, and naturally want to do it more. The most important thing is making it a part of your everyday activity.”
Another essential: The right attitude. “It’s all about the excitement. The parent needs to bring that excitement,” Skoryna says. The kids will enjoy the time and attention, and everyone will be one step (or hop or jump) closer to good health.