10 Habits to Teach Your Kids for Lifelong Health
If you’ve ever tried to replace a bad habit with a good one, we don’t have to tell you that it’s tough. According to science, it can take between 18 to 254 days to completely break a habit, and 66 days for a new habit to become automatic.
Since it’s much easier to build good habits from the start than to break an old one, giving kids a foundation of healthy habits will set them up for wellness when they grow up. These 10 practices are some of the most valuable concepts to pass on to your kids.
This article is part of a partnership with Dr. Lucia Aronica. Dr. Lucia is a lecturer at the Stanford Prevention and Research Center within the Stanford University School of Medicine and is an expert on how diet, genetics and epigenetics interact to impact our health and longevity.
Eat Mostly 'Food' and Enjoy Its Superpowers
An expert’s reasoning: Anticipating the benefits of nutrient-dense food and its superpowers is like harnessing the power of the placebo effect in your own kitchen. The placebo effect works like this: Positive psychological emotion (e.g., knowledge of the benefits of healthy food) produces positive physiological effects, like increased energy, better mood, and boosted performance.
A parent’s reasoning: One of the easiest ways to take care of yourself is to nourish your body through good nutrition. It’s also one of the hardest ways, because the typical American lifestyle makes it easier to pick up takeout or heat up a frozen dinner than to prepare a meal from fresh, whole foods.
Once kids are used to eating an excess of processed, sugar-filled food, convincing them to eat a juicy slice of orange becomes much harder. That orange, however, is almost like medicine. It’s full of vital nutrients our bodies love, and every whole food (think fresh berries, avocados, lentils, nuts) has different superpowers.
Learning to see our food as a way to care for ourselves is a gift. If your family is already hooked on more processed meals, that’s OK. Work on making small changes one at a time. Add a side of fresh veggies to those takeout meals. Cut back on sugary drinks. Choose one night a week to prepare a meal together.
Making small changes is more sustainable than a complete overhaul, but they add up. Start small, and before you know it, your kids will be asking for fresh oranges again.
Identify What Is Food, and What Is Not
An expert’s reasoning: Knowledge drives action. First, identify what real food is and fall in love with it. This will be a powerful primer that will drive better food choices throughout your life. Every love story starts with an encounter. Expose your children to real food early, like a first date. Through frequent “dating” and time spent together, real food can become lifelong lifestyle.
A parent’s reasoning: Fast food is everywhere, and it’s often cheaper than nutritious whole foods. Quality is more important than quantity, here. You can go buy a sweater for $15 online, but the materials are so poor that you’ll have to buy another next winter.
A $75 version feels like a waste, but it’s not a waste if the fabric washes well year after year. You can easily come home with a huge bag of clothes for under $200, but does that mean it’s a better value than one or two items that are made to last? No.
A huge portion of fries, breaded nuggets made of unknown chicken remnants, and a shake made from mysterious powder is cheaper and looks more filling than a hearty ancient grain bowl, but the cheap takeout meal lacks the balanced nutrition that keeps you full.
You’ll find yourself craving more in just a couple of hours, but eating more nutritionally empty snacks still won’t provide the ingredients your body needs to build and maintain strong bones, muscles, skin and nails.
There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a burger, but if you want to feel good past the age of 22, make a point of choosing minimally processed foods with high nutritional value. Your car wouldn’t do well if you poured in the wrong kind of fuel. Your body won’t either, and not even the richest celebrity can buy a new one of those.
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Avoid Toxicants in Food and the Environment
An expert’s reasoning: Food is the most powerful way our environment can affect our physiology, and it works in both ways. On one hand, it can serve as vehicles of nutrients that play a key role in our health. On the other hand, it can be a trojan horse that provides dangerous toxicants an easy way to enter our body and damage its functions from within.
Some of the environmental toxicants contained in food can directly disrupt our epigenetics and are hence called "epi-toxins" or "epi-toxicants."
- Bisphenol A
- Persistent organic pollutants (POPs)
- Perfluorinated compounds (PFCs: e. g. Teflon in non-sticky coatings)
- Heavy metals
Some tips from Dr. Lucia:
- Avoid microwaving food or beverages, including infant formula and pumped breast milk, in plastic containers, and don’t put plastic food containers in the dishwasher.
- Use alternatives to plastic, like glass or stainless steel, whenever possible.
- Check the recycling code on the bottom of products and avoid plastics with recycling codes 3, 6 and 7, which may contain phthalates, styrene and bisphenols, unless they are labeled "biobased" or "greenware," indicating they’re made from corn and do not contain bisphenols.
- Avoid direct contact of plastics with oily substances, which increases leaching of plastic monomers (e.g., bacon, avocado, cheese).
- Avoid canned foods. Can lining is very thin and thus dissolves plastics more easily into the surrounding liquid.
- Avoid using plastic materials to store food with acid PH (tomatoes, citrus fruit, etc.) or high temperature.
A parent’s reasoning: If you used to microwave plastic containers, you’re not the only one. We groaned in exasperation too when we heard about the risks of ingesting BPA. It seems like there’s always something new that’s trying to kill us.
Even if it’s tiring, try to apply new information as research advances our understanding of health and nutrition. BPA, commonly found inside the lining of canned goods and in certain plastic food containers, can disrupt hormone function and increase the risk of developing certain cancers. It’s also associated with insulin resistance, obesity and type 2 diabetes.
Artificial trans fats are common in processed snack foods and baked goods, but trans fat is known to cause inflammation and damage heart health. Added sugars are unhealthy too, and some forms are more harmful than others.
Again, the less processed food you consume, the better. Get in the habit of thoroughly washing produce as well, even if it’s organic, to avoid ingesting harmful pesticides.
Celebrate the Experience of Eating
An expert’s reasoning: Eating as self-care produces the benefits of a mindfulness practice and a creative endeavor. This can lead to improved mood and cognition, and increased motivation for a self-sustained lifestyle change.
A parent’s reasoning: It’s really easy to turn eating into another item on your to-do list. Likely still an enjoyable one, but one you’re only partly present for. Think scarfing down a bagel while sitting in traffic, or mindlessly eating while watching Netflix.
Slow down. It might feel like you don’t have time, but if you legitimately do not have time to sit down and enjoy a meal, that’s something to work on. Most of us do have the time to pause, put down our phones, and pay attention to the entire experience of eating.
Find excitement in cutting up crisp, brightly colored peppers, and appreciate the smell of onions and garlic wafting through the kitchen. Encourage kids to help in the kitchen, and ask them to point out their favorite smells and flavors. Appreciate every delicious sensation.
Sit down at the table and savor the meal together. Appreciate that we are fortunate enough to have the meal at all. Appreciate yourself for preparing a meal that’s nourishing, that’ll prepare you to face another day feeling strong and well.
Find Active Hobbies You Enjoy
An expert’s reasoning: Hobbies are a great way to have fun learning. They also cultivate the practice of using your knowledge to fuel action and self-sustained motivation.
A parent’s reasoning: Life is long, and it will feel even longer if the last several decades of it are spent immobile and in chronic pain. Sorry, kids. The concept of "use it or lose it" is legit. Moving feels effortless when you’re 5, but if you stop moving, it will get harder. The easiest way of avoiding that is by finding physical activities that don’t feel like work.
Take up standup paddleboarding, try bungee fitness, take a dance class, explore rock climbing, or appreciate the burn of an intense sprinting circuit.
Maintaining physical fitness is harder when you’re also juggling work and other adult responsibilities. Going to the gym can feel like another thing you have to do. It’s much easier to stick with an activity when you want to do it.
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Aim for Priorities, Not Perfection
An expert’s reasoning: Don’t aim for perfection. Follow the 80-20 rule. Focus on the 20 percent of things that make 80 percent of your health (those listed in this article ;) and make them a priority.
A parent’s reasoning: Diet culture is garbage. Keep your kids far, far away from it. The original definition of the word diet is "the kinds of food that a person, animal or community habitually eats."
When you Google the word, however, the results suggest something different. Every search result on the first page is about the best diets to try for weight loss. The implication is that a diet is a means to an end. You go on one to lose weight. It works, but if your diet plan is so restrictive that you can’t sustain it for life, it will fail.
Your diet should be a way of eating that you genuinely enjoy, and one that you are content to continue indefinitely. That includes holidays, rest days, vacations, and your favorite piece of chocolate cake.
Perfectionism isn’t good for you, and it doesn’t usually work. Give it up, and work toward a healthy lifestyle you love.
Learn to Set Your Own Rules Around Rest
An expert’s reasoning: Children should be given more opportunity to explore, with fewer rules surrounding their daily activities, including sleep. Learning to develop routines that work for you is a valuable skill.
Instead of having a set bedtime, children can learn to go to sleep when they are tired and rest when they need it. That way, self-care becomes intrinsically motivated, not just another rigid rule to follow.
A parent’s reasoning: We’re currently living in an era that glorifies side hustles and working overtime. Our worrisome economic state makes these practices requirements for many, but we’ve also normalized setting work as our top priority.
After running ourselves into both a nationwide obesity and mental health crisis, people are finally accepting that work-life balance is a necessity, not a luxury.
Rest isn’t optional. Rest is the time your brain and body are rebuilt and restored. Resting is not lazy. If you’re exhausted, don’t ignore it. Rest.
Allowing children to rest when they need it, on their own schedule, can help them to listen to their body's signals later on. Being well-rested makes it much easier to stick to other healthy habits, too.
The short version: If your teenager wants to stay up late and sleep until 11 every weekend, that's OK.
Have a Growth Mindset
An expert’s reasoning: Get comfortable with discomfort. Discomfort and psychological or physical challenge is a trigger of positive adaptations in the body. These adaptations turn on through epigenetic processes. Survival and stress resistance pathways make our cells stronger and more resilient.
A parent’s reasoning: We already touched on the perfectionism thing. It’s really, really bad for you. It’s a quick route to setting unattainable standards for yourself, then feeling like a crushing failure when you struggle to meet them.
It also holds you back from new experiences, because who wants to try something they might be terrible at? Don’t do that to yourself. Celebrate mistakes. They’re opportunities to learn.
Consider them lessons, not an indication that you’re not good enough. A job didn’t work out? Why? Was it a poor fit, or is there something you need to work on?
You skipped working out for two weeks? Maybe you pushed yourself too hard and needed a breather. Don’t beat yourself up for being human.
Just find the lesson, and learn from it.
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Have Respect for the Elderly
An expert’s reasoning: Connecting with the older members of our family gives us an opportunity to practice love every day of our lives. Close connections, the ability to feel strong, positive emotion and emotional closeness, is good for us. It provides kids and adults alike a compass for our values, helping us to define priorities and direction throughout life.
We need to know what's important in life to feel fulfilled and content, and bonding with older generations allows us to learn that.
A parent’s reasoning: Old age seems like it’ll never happen to you when you’re a kid. It will, and when it does, you will have so much wisdom and experience to offer your kids, nieces, nephews, grandchildren and friends. That wisdom will be incredibly valuable. If they don’t write you off as some out-of-touch old person, that is. One day, it will be your turn to be the wise elder.
Until then, appreciate the gift of their wisdom, even if they’re not right about everything. Spend time with them. Learn from their mistakes. Celebrate traditions together. Have long talks over a good meal.
The time together isn’t a sacrifice. It’s a gift that offers both of you a sense of connection and perspective. Reminds you of your roots and your values, and keeps you humble.
Find Pleasure in Healthy Experiences
An expert’s reasoning: Pleasure is a fundamental driver of human behavior. Finding pleasure in a healthy lifestyle (healthy eating, exercising, social connection, sleep) is key to making it "sticky." We hope the tips in this article (using knowledge as a driver of healthy behavior, health placebo, self-care, and self-sustained motivation) will help you get there.
Remember: Knowledge is power. As the philosopher Friedrick Nitsche once said, "Give me a 'why' and I can overcome any how."
A parent’s reasoning: Relying on willpower to make healthy choices doesn’t work. It just doesn’t. Maybe for a week, but not for a lifetime. That’s the endgame, right? To feel strong, healthy and happy for life, not to hit a certain size in time for "hot girl summer." Yuck.
A healthy body and mind should not feel like a nightmare to maintain. If you reach your goals by forcing yourself to do things you hate, it’s not going to be sustainable, or worth it.
Instead of forcing yourself to stick with a stringent diet and workout plan, explore options you’re actually excited about. For example, if you love creamy, decadent pasta dishes, find a recipe that replaces heavy cream with Greek yogurt, and add in roasted vegetables. Try pasta that’s made from lentils or other plant sources, too.
Almost every recipe has a version that incorporates more whole foods. Over time, you'll find yourself craving sugary, salty foods less frequently. The healthy stuff becomes enjoyable, as does the experience of preparing it.
The same goes for exercise. Explore movement in a way you enjoy. Maybe that starts with a restorative yoga class, or just taking a walk with a friend once a week. Eventually, moving becomes something you want to do, not something you have to do.
There will always be days that don't feel fun or easy. Taking pleasure in healthy habits overall makes the tough days easier to get through.
Dr. Lucia Aronica is a lecturer at the Stanford Prevention and Research Center within the Stanford University School of Medicine and specializes in educating others on how to understand their unique genetic makeup to live their best lifestyle. FamilyMinded is partnering with Dr. Lucia Aronica for health and wellness news. To learn more about how you can take control of your health using science, check out Dr. Lucia's free webinar, her website and YouTube channel.
For more tips on living well all year round, keep reading our previous collaborations with Dr. Lucia Aronica on FamilyMinded: