Take a family approach to healthy eating and physical activity

Positive family preparing lunch togetherUW-Extension offers tips to improve family health, well-being

Contact: Gayle Coleman, 608-265-8928, gayle.coleman@ces.uwex.edu

Research shows that family members’ health and well-being is affected by the environment in the home. That’s why taking a family approach to healthy eating and physical activity can be beneficial, says Gayle Coleman, nutrition education program specialist with the University of Wisconsin-Extension.

“Parents have the greatest influence on their children’s health behaviors, including food choices and activity patterns, while children’s behaviors can influence the food and activity choices that parents make,” says Coleman. “For example, some parents report only buying or serving vegetables that they know their children like even if it means serving a very limited variety of vegetables.”

Coleman offers some suggestions for taking a family approach to eating and physical activity.

Eat together as often as possible. Studies show that teens who ate at least five meals a week with their families consumed more fruits, vegetables and calcium-rich foods; had fewer soft drinks; and were less likely to smoke, drink alcohol or use drugs. “Family meals” range from all family members sitting down to dinner to just a few members sharing breakfast.

Make physical activity a fun, family event. Go for a walk, dance or play an active game of tag. Play a round-robin movement game by designating areas of a room or hallway for different exercises and rotating through the exercises. For example, one person might start at the sit-ups area, another at the marching-in-place area and someone else at the stretching area. After a few minutes, everyone moves to a different area.

Be a role model. Children learn from their parents. If you enjoy being physically active and are willing to try foods that are new to you, there’s a good chance that your children will be, too.

Buy healthy foods and beverages you want your family to eat. If children are hungry and all of the foods available for snacks are healthy choices such as fruit, raw veggies, low-fat milk and whole grain cereal, then they will choose a healthy snack. Similarly, children are more likely to drink low-fat milk, juice and water when those drinks are more readily available than soda and other sugary beverages.

Plan meals and prepare foods with children. Children are more likely to taste and eat meals that they help to plan or prepare. Even young children can help in deciding which green vegetable to have or stirring a fruit salad. Plus, they will learn how to plan and prepare meals.

Grow foods together. Children also are more likely to taste and eat foods that they help to grow. Even if it’s just a container garden with a tomato plant or leafy greens, children will learn how vegetables grow and your family will have fresh veggies to eat.

Make the same meal for all family members. If children are routinely expected to eat the same healthy foods as the rest of the family, then they will learn to like these foods. On the other hand, if children are allowed to demand pizza when everyone else is having spaghetti, the stage is set to encourage picky eating.

Remember that parents are responsible for providing food for their children, but children are responsible for deciding how much they will eat. It’s normal for children to have a big appetite one day and not be very hungry the next day. Studies suggest that pressuring children to eat certain foods, clean their plates, or stop eating before they feel full can lead to unpleasant power struggles. In the long run, children are likely to reject foods they are forced to eat.

For more information, contact your local county UW-Extension office (http://counties.extension.wisc.edu) check out the Active Families section of the “Let’s Move” campaign (http://www.letsmove.gov/active-families) and get helpful tips from the “ChooseMyPlate” guidance system (http://www.choosemyplate.gov/healthy-eating-tips/ten-tips.html)


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