It’s back to school, and back to hectic schedules. Tips to keep the whole family healthy and eating right—even when time is tight
You slap some cold cereal in front of the kids, and frantically search for your car keys. A wave to the school bus and you dash off to work, calling a quick coffee “breakfast.” It’s another lunch at your desk, and who knows what you’ll do for dinner. Suddenly the day’s over and, once again, you barely got outside, let alone got any exercise.
From overscheduling to multitasking, a busy lifestyle may leave little room for a healthy life. Instead, it’s fast-food meals and fitful nights, weight gain and weak muscles. But when you make wise decisions for yourself and your children about nutrition, sleep, and exercise, your family will be healthier and happier.
The Stress of Stress
Rushing around ruins our mood and wrecks our energy, negatively affecting our work performance and parenting. A constant fight-or-flight mode also races the heart and constricts the blood vessels, inhibits digestion, and hinders breathing. The stress hormones you release also can make you store fat and burn fewer calories. “Insulin production is compromised, which shifts glucose levels and strains the adrenal glands,” says Ellen Lewis, ND, resident naturopathic physician at the National College of Natural Medicine in Portland, Ore. “All this can drive inflammation throughout our body and play out as high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and immune system disorders.”
The first step to quiet the stress response is to simply take a moment and breathe. “Stop and be in the present moment, even if that means just looking down at the lines in your hand,” says Mary Bove, ND, a naturopath in Brattleboro, Vt. “Then, take a few deep belly breaths. This will halt the brain’s release of anxiety neurotransmitters and relax you enough so you can become aware that you have choices.”
A healthy, low-stress lifestyle also includes ample sleep. “Adequate sleep is necessary for children’s growth and development, and strengthening their immune systems,” says Bove. She suggests seven to nine hours a night for older children and parents.
Begin with breakfast, not skipping it. Says Lewis, “Breakfast gets your metabolism going and produces energy, which we need at the start of the day.” This is especially true for kids. And fueling up throughout the day is also important for tiny stomachs. “To get enough energy, most children need to have food every two to three hours, and babies even more frequently,” says Lewis.
Quick-fix breakfast tip:
Wake up to Crock Pot oatmeal. You can literally make it in your sleep! Before bed, add oats, water, and other ingredients of your choice (additions like apples and cinnamon will make your house smell great, too) to a Crock Pot and set to low. In the morning, breakfast is ready. Try healthful toppers such as honey, stevia, almonds, and fresh or dried fruit.
Toddlers to Teens
Introduce kids to healthful food early in life. By age nine to 12 months, fruits and vegetables can be added into the diet. Lewis recommends starting with the latter. “If you start with puréed veggies, your child can develop a preference for them, instead of the sweetness from fruit,” she says. And stick to organic for those, as well as fish, chicken, and other meats. “Once your child starts eating solid foods, introduce one new food per week, so you’ll know which might give them a reaction, such as gas, rashes, and constipation,” says Lewis, who recommends introducing whole grains after age 4, when children’s immune systems can better handle them. Opt for complex ones, found in quinoa, millet, rice, and amaranth instead of white, refined flour. Be aware of food allergies. “Wheat is a typical intolerance for kids, as are dairy, peanuts, citrus fruits, corn, and sometimes eggs,” says Lewis.
Meanwhile, make sure your children drink plenty of water every day, from a dropperful for infants to several glassfuls (try flavoring water with a lemon wedge or mint leaves) for older children.
Quick-fix snack ideas:
Have easy-to-grab after-school snack options on hand like raw cut-up fruit and vegetables, hard-boiled eggs, string cheese, and yogurt. Try healthier, refreshing alternatives to soda, such as sparkling drinks flavored with fruit or stevia, cold or hot herbal teas, and coconut water, an exceptionally hydrating drink that is rich in heart-healthy potassium. The most popular source of overabundant, added sugars is conventional soda—don’t make it a habit.
Set an Example
Let your kids help you, in the grocery store or the garden, by washing vegetables and assisting with preparing and cooking food. Talk to them about those apples and artichokes, where they come from, and how they help us stay healthy.
Make time for sit-down family meals around a dinner table, at least a few days a week. This can be a challenge after a long day at work, school, sports practice, or music lessons, when it’s so tempting to eat microwaved meals in front of the TV. One busy mom shares how she came to enjoy family mealtime: “I used to come home from work and look at the messy house and kitchen, and find myself getting frustrated and angry,” she says. “One day, I came home, put the groceries on the counter, made myself a cup of tea, and put my feet up. I then very sweetly told my kids, ‘As soon as the groceries are put away and the kitchen is cleaned up, I’ll make dinner.’ This became our new routine.”
Most important, be a role model for your children by maintaining your own excellent health. When they see you eating well, going off to the gym, or waking up refreshed from a good night’s sleep, they’ll be more apt to do the same.
Cover Your Bases
No matter how well you and your family eat, the depleted soils in which our produce is grown can result in deficiencies; studies show fruits and vegetables have lower levels of important minerals and trace elements today than they did when measured in the 50s and 60s. “Magnesium is one we don’t get enough of,” says Bove. She also recommends a multivitamin, B complex for stress, vitamin D (a blood test can determine deficiency) and vitamin C with mixed bioflavonoids. A good multi will cover most of the basics. Also essential, says Lewis, are omega-3 fattyacids, found in fish oil and flaxseed oil (there are many flavored varieties available, including gummies, which are great for kids); and probiotics for the beneficial bacteria that populate the gut. Lewis recommends 3 billion colony forming units (CFUs) of probiotics for babies, 7 to 10 billion for children, and 20 billion for adults.
Choose a day to shop. Prepare a meal plan or list of foods your family likes, and don’t go the grocery store hungry.
Stock your cupboards. Stack the shelves with staples like whole grains, nut and seeds, nut butters, and healthful oils.
Fill your refrigerator. Cut up fruits and vegetables, wash all the salad greens, and have sandwiches on hand.
Make meals the night before. Use a rice cooker and Crock Pot, soak grains to cook twice as fast, and mix up muffin batter so it’s ready to bake.
Prepare meals in bulk and freeze. For example, make extra chili and store in meal-sized containers, and purée vegetables for baby food and freeze in ice cube trays.
They say that pets are people, too, and you want to treat them like family by feeding them right. If you don’t have the time to make organic pet food from scratch, go for the commercially available raw meat-based meals with muscle tissue, bone (for calcium), and organ meat (for trace minerals and vitamins), urges Michael Tarrant, DVM, holistic vet in Olathe, Kan. Second to these are grain-free diets, both canned and kibble. For supplements, he suggests two basics: a multivitamin and fish oil to ensure adequate intake of omega fatty acids.
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