Five Healthy Habits to Teach Your Kids

My mom always packed us kids healthy lunches, and man, I hated it.

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Teaching your kids the importance of healthy eating should start early.

We’d get granola and peaches to the other kids’ Twinkies and Hi-C. It was a total bummer, but I sure learned the difference between good-for-you and bad-for-you foods. And while it stank to nibble on nuts while my best friend had a Wonder Bread sandwich, my mom’s nutritional education stayed with me, and it’s why I eat much healthier today.

In fact, I completely credit my mom for giving me the instruction I needed to make healthful choices in my adulthood.

I try to do the same with my kids. True, I get the same “MOM! Whole-wheat bread AGAIN?” refrain, but I rest easy knowing I’m setting my girls up for a lifetime (I hope) of good nutrition.

Here are my hard and fast rules:

1. Sweets only after something healthy.

The second my daughters get home from school, they’re asking for candy. I don’t give them something sweet every day, but when I do, it’s always after a healthy snack of a hardboiled egg and tomatoes, or a cheese stick and almonds, or hummus and cucumber. And also: no sweets after 6PM. When they eat sugar after dinner, they’re complete sugar spazzes who don’t sleep well.

I have a friend who serves her children a big plate of vegetables before anything else for dinner, and only after they’ve finished the plate, can they go on to the other portions of the meal. I’m not that militant, but it’s always good to teach your kids to eat healthy before filling up on less nutritious foods.

2. Always eat some protein for breakfast.

Oh, but it’s so easy to pour cereal into a bowl and call it a morning. I know, and I do it too. Yet, I try to pair the cereal with an egg or some turkey sausage. Protein helps keep a feeling of fullness in my daughters’ tummies well past the carb limit of an hour or two. If I’m really pressed for time, a protein shake (they make formulations for children) work well.

My daughter used to complain about hunger right before her 11AM math class, and so I packed some milk and nuts in her snack bag and this combination seemed to take the edge off and allow her to concentrate better. Protein does that.

3. It’s OK to go crazy every now and then.

I know a very, very skinny woman who packs her very, very skinny children the most meager lunches you can imagine. She is very concerned about childhood obesity and passes that concern onto her girls. I get it in theory, however imbuing your kids with the sense that all food is bad all the time can lead to trouble. I let my kids go crazy with less than stellar food choices every now and then because I believe that complete abstinence from the candies and the ice cream and the lemonade can breed an unhealthy relationship with food. I want my children to enjoy these things – even go overboard within reason for special occasions – so they don’t feel they’re entirely restricted.

4. We can walk.

Yes we can. When we go to the mall or a movie or anywhere for that matter, I choose a parking spot away from the front of the building. Sure I get the complaints, but I want my daughters to move their bodies every chance they get. When I share with them that walking is good for us and only takes a few extra minutes, they sort of get it. I also encourage activity before screen time (both TV and the iPad). My girls are genius at settling in with their electronics and not moving for hours. So I work in activity breaks and take the games and shows away after a certain amount of time to reorient them to conversation, physical activity, and you know, actually being a part of the family.

5. Food that comes out of the ground or has a mom is the best for you.

I’m totally paraphrasing Jillian Michaels here, but processed foods are full of junk and little to no nutritional value. I teach my kids that if it grows in the soil or lived once (this is a questionable tactic because now my daughter wants to be a vegetarian), that it’s the best for your body. Whole, fresh, unprocessed foods are the way to go for vitamins and minerals and good nutrition, not to mention these foods have less toxins and gunk inside them.

The above are the gold standard habits I want to pass onto my children for a long and healthy life.

What do you want your kids to know about health?

Debbie Anderson is a 44-year-old freelance writer and editor who blogs at her slice-of-life site, sandiegomomma.com.