Fun and games: How to help children develop healthy eating and exercise habits

four boy playing ball on green grass
Photo: Robert Collins/Unsplash

IF YOU have ever had trouble stabilising your weight, improving your diet, or becoming more active, you will be well aware of the fact that us humans are creatures of habit. Once we have become stuck in a rut, it is so much more difficult – though not impossible – to shift out of it. For this reason alone, it is of vital importance that we instil good habits in children from a young age. 

By the time they are adults then, they will have had years of practice at doing the right thing, to the point that it’s very much second nature.

As a rule, it takes eight weeks for a behaviour to become a habit. Though it’s often some way into these eight weeks that we lose interest in what we know is the healthier option for us.

In short, willpower alone isn’t enough for us to stick with it. We get bored, distracted, or stressed, which all conspires against our good intentions and sends us running back to the familiarity of our old (often bad) habits.

Children, however, can become much more excited at the idea of trying something new if it’s presented as a game or an adventure.

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Growing your own food is a simple but effective step I always like to encourage people to investigate. It can help you to reduce your carbon footprint, broaden the range of foods you eat, encourage seasonality in your meals, enhance the nutritional profile of your diet, and help de-stress by taking your mind off more mundane tasks.

Young children can help with this and have lots of fun doing so.

Try encourage them to join in planting everything from sprouting broccoli to colourful chard, cut-and-come-again lettuces and herbs like parsley, salad burnet, edible flowers, and chervil. Not alone does it mean you begin to incorporate a much broader nutritional mix into their day-to-day diet, it also means they get to know precisely how their foods were grown, free of pesticides and harmful chemicals. Not to mention, home-grown herbs and vegetables are so much cheaper than the store-bought equivalent.

And, with home-grown produce, you can pick them as you need them, so there is never any waste, and the satisfaction that comes with picking food you have grown yourself is a million times more thrilling than just throwing something in the shopping trolley.

Children develop a much greater appreciation of the value of food and the cycle of the food chain when they see the compost they made from kitchen scraps magically transform into edible ingredients.

With fussy eaters (of which we all know there are many, including adults!), they’re also that bit more inclined to try a new food if they have taken part in growing and preparing it themselves.

Rather than assuming they won’t like a particular ingredient – perhaps because you didn’t like it yourself as a child – just let them try a little and make their own minds up. You might be surprised to find they like munching on sprouting broccoli straight from the ground!

A tiny patch, such as containers on a windowsill or patio, can generate a huge amount of food if you rotate what you grow and keep planting a little at a time in-keeping with the seasons. If you go at it with the assumption that there will be some for the slugs, some for the birds, and some for you, then anything more will be a bonus.

Word to the wise though, you don’t want to undo all your good work once you get into the kitchen.

Depending on the age of your children, you could start a challenge to try a new recipe each week, using one new healthy ingredient.

The internet has an endless supply of healthy, delicious recipes that are cheap and quick to prepare. Perhaps the meal has to include a new green food, or an oily fish, or seeds. Or maybe it needs to be gluten-free or vegetarian a couple of times a week.

Or you could try learning as a family about a new culture by looking up a recipe from a different country every few weeks. The options are endless and certainly don’t need to revolve around the same old food groups all the time.

Eating a very limited selection of overly-processed ingredients is one of the main causes of food intolerances. Simply by varying what you eat and introducing new ingredients, you can take a huge amount of pressure off your immune system.

What about activity then? This can be as simple as taking the stairs instead of the lift and making a game to see who gets to the top first.

The best recipe is to try using activity as a reward instead of using sugary treats. Good behavior can be rewarded with time in the playground or playing together in the garden.

The fresh air and exercise will do you as much good as it will do your children, so don’t make excuses not to join in.

Once activity becomes a regular part of their day, children will sleep better, wake more refreshed, and generally be better able to concentrate when needed.

Activities such as climbing or using jungle gym are also excellent for co-ordination too, which in turn helps to regulate how the brain problem-solves, so it’s not just good for their physical health.

So, rather than waiting until health issues force you to take action, make a conscious effort now to lay down healthy foundations for your child’s future.

As the saying goes, if you don’t look after your body, where else are you going to live?