Most parents would love for their children to live a heart-healthy lifestyle by eating a well-balanced diet and exercising. But getting children to buy in often is difficult.
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The trick may lie in starting these good habits when your children are young. The earlier you start a habit, the more likely it is to stick, says Sara Lappe, MD, a pediatrician at Cleveland Clinic Children’s.
“The earlier you start eating healthy, the better,” Dr. Lappe says. “We know that once kids start developing the habits and the taste for those unhealthy foods, it sticks. It’s hard to break those bad habits.”
It’s hard even for adults to adopt new habits. So it’s important to keep trying and be patient when it comes to lifestyle changes.
Start slowly, Dr. Lappe suggests. For example, swap out an unhealthy snack with a healthier one a few days a week, or get your children involved in the process of buying or preparing food.
“Take them to the store’s produce section,” Dr. Lappe says. “Allow them to pick out their own produce, either fresh or frozen and then take it home to prepare together. The important thing is to keep them interested.”
Preparing the meal can be a shared family activity. Delegate tasks to your children and try not to fuss too much about the mess. What’s most important is keeping the new, healthy activity fun and engaging.
The power of modeling
Kids will mimic their parents, so make sure you are doing the same thing you want your children to do when it comes to eating healthy and exercising.
“Set a good example by trying something new yourself,” Dr. Lappe says.
A recent study in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health found that family meals also can help to get kids to eat more fruits and vegetables.
Eat a bite of cauliflower, follow it with an “mmm!” and the kids may follow suit.
The same can be said for encouraging new exercise habits. Research shows parents can increase their children’s exercise habits by increasing their own.
“Make it something fun,” Dr. Lappe says. “Go out for a walk with the family, or make it a game. Build an obstacle course in your house, play together, get each other laughing and have fun.”