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How to create lasting healthy habits for your kids

Posted by Nick Joanes.
First Published Jun 2020; updated Jun 2023.

We all want our kids to be healthy, but how do teach them? Here are 5 tips to nurturing healthy kids.

This article comes from guest contributor Nick Joanes from Painless Movement.

Healthy habits are positive behaviours that bring us physical, mental and social well-being, prevent illnesses and bring life long benefits.

Studies show that the habits we develop in childhood related to eating and exercise carry over into adulthood.

Here are some useful tips for helping your kids develop a lasting healthy lifestyle.

Be a Role Model

Kids always learn by example.

From you, they will learn how to act, eat, treat others, react, and communicate. This means that if you embrace a healthy lifestyle your kid will be much more likely to imitate it.

Always reinforce positive behaviours and if they make small mistakes, don’t make them feel guilty. It’s a long-distance race.

Balanced Nutrition

According to the UK Government, nearly a third of children aged 2 to 15 years old are overweight or obese, which increases their risk of developing illnesses as adults such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease and mental health issues.

Children who are a healthy weight tend to be happier, fitter and have better self-confidence. Children’s eating habits mimic those of their parents, so if unhealthy food and sugary snacks aren’t part of a family routine, children won’t crave them.

  • Try to serve a variety of fruits and vegetables, avoid soft drinks, keep in mind proper portion sizes and avoid high-sugar, high-salt and junk food.
  • Hydration is very important and kids tend to drink less water than they need. Place bottles filled with water in visible and accessible places to remind them to drink regularly during the day.

Healthy food

Get your kids involved. They will be more willing to eat (or try) their own meals.

Healthy Eating Behaviours

  • Try not to use food to punish or reward your children. When food, such as sweets, is used as a reward, children may assume that these foods are more valuable than others, like vegetables.
  • Introduce the habit of always trying new food, without forcing them to eat it.  Kids’ taste is continuously developing so they will accept eventually that veggie or fish they didn’t like before.
  • Have a meal routine, eating always at the same time and avoid snacking in between. Also, don’t skip breakfast!
  • Eat meals together as a family as often as possible. It’s a good chance to act as a role model for your kids and enjoy quality family time.
  • Get your kids involved in menu planning, food shopping and meal preparation. It’s a great opportunity to teach them measurements, conversions and cooking skills. Also, they will be more willing to eat (or try) their own meals.
  • Plan the meals in advance so you can make sure that they are nutritious and varied. You can use one day of the week to plan the meals and another one for the shopping.

Being active

Stay Active

Different studies tell us that one hour of moderate exercise improve the BMI of children, their school performance, their mood and their sleep. Physical exercise has benefits in all ages, and more active children are more likely to become active adults.

  • Get involved. Children will enjoy more exercising with their families (and it’s a good way to keep active yourself). Going for walks, riding a bike, swimming, skating, kicking a ball around… there are so many things you can do together!
  • Involve them in daily tasks such as walking the dog, watering the plants, helping you wash the car, taking out the rubbish, etc.
  • Encourage walking wherever possible and using the stairs.
  • Physical activity doesn’t necessarily mean participating in a sports programme, but those can be very fun for kids and help them develop social skills. 
  • Plan more outdoors activities. Getting out in nature is a fun way to check out local green areas and spend time with your family. Biking, hiking, rock climbing and fishing are a few outdoor activities that you can do together.

Less TV and Screens

Parents should try to limit screen time to 2 hours (or less if possible) daily. Also, more time in front of the TV usually means less time being active or less time sleeping.

  • Implement rules that the entire family follows, like no video games or computers during school nights or a daily 2 hour TV limit on weekends. Agree with your kids the times for it and stick to it.
  • Discourage eating meals or snacks in front of the TV, as this makes it difficult to pay attention to feelings of fullness, leading to overeating.

Sleep Well

Kids need approximately 10 to 12 hours of sleep to keep good levels of concentration, good mental health and better mood.

  • Establish a bedtime routine: no screens or active games for at least an hour before bed, a bath, teeth-brushing and then reading.

Bad habits are not easy to break (especially as children get older) because they are actions that we perform subconsciously.

A good way to begin these positive changes is by introducing only one or two new healthy habits a month, so your kids can internalize these changes more easily.

Using this short guide you can begin to create these small yet lasting good habits and remove some of the bad habits, as part of you and your family’s long term health goal.