Healthy Families

Today’s blog post is submitted by our summer contributor, Kara Olsen-Becerra.

Most parents today realize that our country is facing a severe health crisis. More money is spent on healthcare in the United States than in any other country, but we are not even close to the top of the list for quality or for being a healthy nation. This generation of small children could be the first that lives a shorter life span than their parents. Time for physical education in schools has been reduced, and many parents are less than pleased with the quality of food served in school lunches.

Many parents today are very concerned about what all of this will mean for the future our children. There is so much conflicting information everywhere about what is best for our children in regards to health, that even very thoughtful parents are finding themselves lost in a sea of information. As a parent, I have many concerns about the current condition of health in our country. I believe that as a parent, it is a gift to my children to try to instill healthy lifestyle and eating habits. It is a gift to encourage and participate in physical activity with our children. Healthier individuals and families can ultimately lead to a healthier community and country. Because the idea of managing and reforming the health of the whole nation can seem overwhelming, I would like to offer some tips about how parents can start making a difference today by promoting health in their own families.

  1. Even parents with good intentions often have a difficult time getting their children to eat the micro-nutrient rich foods that will help their bodies grow and perform at their best. Picky eating is something that causes stress for a lot of families. Parents often engage in power struggles with their children over eating, and it’s hard not to do at times. Even after doing my best to provide healthy food options at my house, one of my three children still tries his best to be picky, and it is hard not to be frustrated at times. Ellen Satter is one of the leading experts in the food relationship, and she suggests that there be a division of responsibility with eating.  Parents are responsible for what, when, and where their children eat. Children are responsible for how much and whether or not they eat. Research shows that forcing children to eat certain amounts or types of foods doesn’t ultimately help them become better eaters in the long run. Parents are responsible for providing healthy options for children. It may take several tries of offering a food to a child before they are willing to give it a try. Ultimately, even most adults who are healthy eaters have a few foods that they don’t prefer, so don’t worry if your child doesn’t like every single food they try. For more information on feeding practices, check out Ellen Satter’s book “Child of Mine.”
  2. Grow a garden. Even many families who live in an apartment or duplex, can grow a few tomato plants or herbs in pots. I know from experience, that even my pickier eater is more willing to try something if we grew it ourselves, and especially if he was a part of the process. My kids will go out in the garden and nibble on string beans or whole cucumbers. Many communities have community or family gardens where people can learn together.
  3. Eat meals together as a family whenever possible. There has been a growing amount of research done on the positive effects of family meals. Not only do families who eat together tend to eat healthier, but it serves as a great time to nourish with food and love.
  4. Think about the messages you send your children by the way you speak about your own body. Do your children hear you criticize the way you look often? If we are not kind with ourselves, it is hard to imagine that our kids will be kind with themselves. When talking to your kids about why we are healthy, don’t have the focus be about body size. If your kids asks why you eat healthy as a family, you could say: “We eat healthy so that our bodies will be healthy and strong for a long time. I love you so much, and I want you to live and long and healthy life.”
  5. Limit the amount of screen time that your children have access to. The American Academy of Pediatrics, recommends that children under two have no screen time and that even elementary aged children have less than 2 hours of total screen time a day. Less screen time means more time to play outside and to be physically active.
  6. Make sure that your children are getting enough sleep. Children who don’t get enough sleep don’t perform as well in school. This is common sense, and I know that I personally struggle to stay alert and perform my best when I am severely sleep deprived. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics: “An estimated 64 percent of school-aged children (ages 6 to 12) go to bed later than 9 p.m., and 43 percent of boys ages 10 to 11 sleep less than the recommended amount each night.”
  7. Make physical activity a normal part of your family. Work in the garden together, go on bike rides, hikes, and make it mandatory that your kids play outside each day. Children pick up on family norms, and when moving your body is a norm in your family, it will be a habit that is more likely to stick. Every child may not end up being the start of a sports team, but that doesn’t mean that he/she can’t enjoy some sort of exercise.
  8. Talk to your child’s pediatrician about additional vitamins or supplements. Most pediatricians will recommend some sort of daily multivitamin. In the Pacific Northwest, there is a great need for extra Vitamin D.
  9. If you are concerned with the lack of physical activity or poor quality of school lunches, voice your opinion. Even better than voicing your opinion, be willing to be part of the solution. There are most likely other parents who feel the same way that you do who would be willing to help out.
  10. Be a model yourself of healthy living. When you have a food that you don’t prefer, make sure to let your kids know, “This is not a food that I prefer, but I am going to give it a try, because I know that it will help my body to be healthy.” You can also model that it is possible to take time to exercise even when you are a busy adult. Kids are smart. They are really smart. They know when are actions do or do not match up with our words.

No family is perfect or perfectly healthy. We all have things that we are working on to do better. We don’t need to spend time being hard on ourselves. Instead of focusing on all of the things that you aren’t doing right, try focusing on what you are doing well and setting some goals to make improvements. We all love our children so much and want them to live optimal lives. I would love if you all would take a moment to share ways that your family is trying to be healthy!

Kara Olsen-Becerra loves working with children and families. She taught the Live and Learn with Your Baby classes in Corvallis for 6 years, and she is currently working as a nutrition educator with the Linus Pauling Institute-Healthy Youth Program. She loves being a part of this great community, and she loves being silly and playing with her husband and three young children.