Few modern parents would find fault with the occasional glass of chocolate milk after dinner or an extra bit of TV on a rainy day. But what if those exceptions have somehow become the norm? It happens—but it’s not too late to reverse course. In her book Family Fit Plan: A 30-Day Wellness Transformation (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2019), Dr. Natalie Digate Muth identifies six culprits pulling families away from healthier habits at home and offers actionable alternatives that foster family togetherness while improving our routines.
Once kids reach school age, parents are no longer the only providers and deciders of what their little ones eat. There are snacks at school, at sports practices and at friends’ homes. Come dinnertime, frustrated parents are staring at plates of cold, uneaten food. Instead of forcing kids to eat, Muth advises trying to learn why they’re not. “Get a sense of their snacking,” she says. “Ask what was served, what their choices were.” She recommends encouraging kids to pause and tune in to whether they are actually hungry when snacks are offered, and letting them know it’s OK to say no. At home, Muth suggests scheduling snacks and nixing the grazing. “When a child is asking for food outside of a meal or snack, redirect them and be specific,” she says. “Let them know dinner is in 30 minutes.”
Muth’s family has dessert on Tuesday and Friday. This gives her kids something to look forward to and prevents the dreaded begging for sweets. She advocates not keeping treats in the house; instead, build excitement about the yumminess to come by making a special grocery trip with the kids to choose an ice cream. When pantries are stacked with sweets but kids are told no repeatedly, it is confusing and distressing. But Muth sees many parents being overly rigid about sugar. Some weekends, back-to-back birthday parties may mean a double serving of cupcakes. So, encourage kids to enjoy those times, and lay off the guilt. “Do not sweat it or worry about it,” she says.
As with treats, Muth likes marking special occasions with soda or juice. Perhaps the kids can order lemonade with restaurant meals, while the parents commit to striking diet cola from the grocery list. “This one takes family-level change,” she says. “Sometimes ripping off the Band-Aid can be the most successful, but if you can’t go all the way yet, start diluting fruit juice with water.” Over time, choosing sparkling water over soda is easier when soda isn’t there to begin with. “Move away from the willpower,” Muth adds, “and make the healthy choice the easy choice.”
We all know how easy it is to find the bottom of a large popcorn during a movie on the big screen, and the same is true when you’re at home. When it comes to nutrition, eating in front of a TV or while scrolling on your phone is a recipe for huge portions. “Teens are eating in front of the TV and not spending that time with family,” Muth says. Instead, insist on meals at the table. For parents of toddlers, an iPad on the table has become all too common. Over time, Muth says, kids will expect a screen with dinner in lieu of learning to sit and eat. If your toddler isn’t biting, go back and examine snacking habits. “Look at what is offered and when,” she says. “Food in front of a hungry kid will be eaten.”
Poor sleep is associated with overeating and decreased physical activity, and adding screens to bedtime routines can lead to restless nights. First and foremost, Muth recommends encouraging a consistent bedtime and keeping all screens out of bedrooms. If screens are part of your family’s evening—and now that up to 90 percent of American high school teachers assign homework that must be completed online, they probably are—plan to power down an hour before bedtime. Parents who struggle to fall and stay asleep, Muth says, should examine their caffeine intake; not only can coffee too late in the day make you stay up later than you want, but it can also cause unwanted nighttime wake-ups.
Slick Sales & Marketing
By age 2, kids recognize advertised products at grocery stores and ask for them by name, but parents are key players in helping kids spot the difference between ads and content. Limit kids’ exposure by choosing ad-free programming like PBS Kids, or record a show on DVR and fast-forward through commercials. For older kids, age-based restrictions on games and apps can circumvent advertising and in-app purchases. For teens, teach them to recognize targeted marketing in hopes they push back against the idea. “They may rebel against the companies the same way they rebel against their parents,” Muth says. “Studies show that teens make healthier choices once they realize what the media is trying to do.”