After a summer filled with relaxed schedules, ice cream cones, and – let’s face it – maybe a little more screen time than usual, it can be challenging for kids to move from summer fun to classroom success. Kicking off with healthy habits at the start of the school year encourages the whole family to achieve a smooth transition that can last the whole year. We checked in with the American Heart Association’s Linda Van Horn, a Registered Dietitian and Professor of Preventive Medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, who recommended six simple strategies to help your child jump into back-to-school mode, with habits that will help them succeed both in and out of the classroom.
- Model healthy behavior. Kids learn by watching YOU… Show them how you eat right, stay physically active and practice good hygiene, like hand washing. Praise them when you catch them doing things right! No one is perfect all the time, but if your children see you engaging in these activities, and hear you praise them when they do likewise, they are more likely to recognize that good health is essential to accomplishing their best.
- Give your child a mealtime role. Encourage your child to choose the family’s fruits and veggies in the supermarket produce section and involve them in age-appropriate tasks such as setting the table or stirring, chopping and measuring ingredients. You can also ask them to help with menu planning using healthy ingredients. Giving children a responsibility around mealtime can encourage a healthy relationship with food and an appreciation of what goes into putting breakfast or dinner on the table, while also establishing a routine. Plus, kids are more likely to taste a dish if they helped plan or prepare it.
- Make family meals part of your weekly routine. Busy moms and dads, after school activities, homework and everything in between often interferes with family meals around the table. Because there are many benefits derived from finding time for family meals, you might want to give this some thought. Studies show that children in families that eat together frequently have stronger vocabulary, and more academic success, decreased risk of being overweight or developing disordered eating, fewer behavior problems in young children and increased consumption of healthier foods. Eating together with your family for about 20 minutes even three to five times a week offers benefits. Maybe breakfast is an easier time of day for everyone to gather, or maybe Friday, Saturday and/or Sunday lunches. You know best what the rhythm is for your family, so consider how to capture some of those precious moments.
- Encourage trying something new. Even just a little. Whether it’s a new food or a new activity, trying something new helps kids discover what they enjoy and how to reach their potential. Have a child who doesn’t like to try new foods? Try new foods together, so you make food exploration a family activity. Remember to keep it fun and positive while also setting realistic goals. You might even give stars or stickers for these new attempts to accumulate for a special meal out or a family favorite activity. Small steps can make a big difference in health over time, so encourage gradual change and build up from there.
- Plan for 60 minutes of play each day. Building healthy exercise habits starting young can establish that routine through adulthood. Kids have energy to burn! They eat better, sleep better and do homework better when they have spent an hour in moderate to vigorous physical activity. Help them find after school activities they enjoy whether it’s an organized sports league, biking around the neighborhood with friends, dancing class or running around in the backyard. Let your child experiment with different activities until they find something that they really love doing. Kids who get daily physical activity also perform better in school, have better attendance rates, have a more positive attitude about school, have less disruptive behavior and higher self-esteem.
- Set a bedtime – and stick to it. The transition from a summertime sleep schedule to a school year sleep schedule can be rough, but it is important that kids get enough sleep so they can go to school feeling refreshed and alert. Studies show adequate sleep boosts kids’ energy and enthusiasm, helps them learn more easily, reduces many behavioral problems and helps control body weight. To make bedtime easier, show them the clock and identify what bedtime is. Then ask for their input on setting a routine that includes homework time, screen time, bath time and whatever else is typical in the evening. That way everyone is involved in making these decisions and it is the clock, not you, that tells what needs to be done by when. And while you’re at it, you can improve the quality of your own sleep, too!
Note: Since everyone’s health history and nutritional needs are so different, please make sure that you talk with your doctor and a registered dietitian to get advice about the diet and exercise plan that‘s right for you.