For families across the globe, the Covid-19 pandemic has brought uncertainty and fear – turning normal lives and routines upside down.
As we enter the final week of the government-prescribed lockdown, you may be struggling more than ever with the idea of staying home.
Inevitably in uneasy times, you may find yourself clinging to comfort and struggling to maintain healthy habits as a family, such as resorting to unhealthy drinks and snacks to satisfy the kids and occupying their time with endless hours behind screens, while you all grapple for a good night’s sleep.
Research shows that the food preferences and health behaviours established by children and adolescents track with them as they age and that establishing healthy habits early has positive effects on obesity risk and long-term health.
While the economic and lifestyle implications of the lockdown continue to challenge us, here are some ideas of how you can use the remaining time at home to foster healthy habits with your children that last long after lockdown.
Educate your children about healthy eating
An understanding of how diet influences growth, development and longer-term health provides children with an important foundation for making healthy food choices.
Studies show that when nutrition education starts early, children do have a better understanding of the benefits of making healthy choices in life and of the long-term impact on their future health.
While there is more time available at home, you may wish to educate your kids (and even yourself) on how to make healthy and diverse food choices, as well as how even small daily changes, such as adding an extra piece of fruit or portion of vegetables to their meals, can promote greater food variety and healthier eating habits.
Remember to talk to your children about food in a positive way – encouraging balanced eating patterns without criminalizing specific foods.
Involve the kids in food preparation
While food knowledge is a good foundation for making healthier food choices, developing the skills to prepare and cook food early in life can be fun and have a positive influence on dietary behaviours.
Encouraging hands-on involvement by children and adolescents in meal planning and preparation has been shown to encourage healthier food choices, particularly promoting greater fruit, vegetable and fibre intakes, while reducing the amount of fat and salt consumed.
Learning food preparation and cooking skills has also been shown to build adolescents’ confidence and enjoyment in preparing meals.
Getting your kids involved in meal planning over lockdown, as well as cooking the evening meal together, is a fantastic way to start building their skills, while promoting greater investment and enjoyment in the food they eat and filling your afternoons in a fun and constructive way.
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Prioritise family mealtimes
Mealtimes should provide families with the perfect opportunity to get together and catch up, but busy work and school schedules, extramural and household activities.
As well as the constant distraction of media and devices, mean that meals are often eaten separately or distractedly or grabbed on the go.
In fact, there is evidence that enjoying more meals together as a family protects children against overweight and obesity.
Studies show that children and adolescents who share at least three meals with their family per week are more likely to have healthier diets and eating patterns than those who don’t.
They are also more likely to have healthier weights.
During this time of uncertainty and stress, more mealtimes spent together may strengthen family bonding and help the kids feel comforted and secure, but also provide great opportunities to discuss healthy eating and encourage portion control.
Reduce screen time
With the kids at home all day, every day, and your work routine likely in disarray, it can be very tempting to ramp up screen time – distracting your kids with mobile phones, computers and television for hours at a time.
Excessive screen time and too little sleep has been linked to poor cognitive skills in children, including delayed development in language and memory, as well as hindering their ability to complete tasks.
More screen and couch time have also been shown to promote unhealthy behaviours such as mindless snacking and has been linked to the development of childhood obesity and diabetes in later life.
Recent South African guidelines prescribe no screen time for children under two years, and no more than one hour a day for those between two and five years.
For children six years and above, the World Health Organisation recommends consistent limits on screen time and types of media, as well as making sure that screen time does not affect other activities like sleep and being physically active.
Enforcing strict limits on screen use during this pandemic is so important for developing or maintaining healthy screen-time interactions for your children and preventing them from forming unhealthy habits once the lockdown is over.
What you allow now, you may never be able to roll back.
Don’t distract your kids with junk food and fizzy drinks
At times when the family is holed up at home and you are scrambling to find another activity to entertain those bored young minds, as well as potentially keep on top of work commitments and household chores, using treats as distractions or rewards for good behaviour may be appealing.
While we want to avoid criminalizing and glorifying certain foods, and rather look at diets as a whole, maintaining balance in the way children are fed - even during unusual and unstable times – is still important.
Particularly in the early years when eating habits are formed, too much exposure to “junk” food and fizzy drinks can shape children’s preferences for unhealthy food.
Studies show that dietary likes and dislikes become more difficult to change as children age and that, even by the age of three, diets high in “junk” food are linked obesity risk.
On the other hand, eating more varied wholesome and nutritious foods early in life promote dietary diversity and help children to develop healthy relationships with food as they age.
Rather than filling the kids up on processed, convenience food items, try using this time to reduce the amount of package foods your family eats and make more home cooked meals.
Having healthier snacks - such as fruit, vegetables, and healthy beverages (water, milk and pure fruit juice) – readily available can also help to reduce the desire for less healthy options, such as fizzy drinks, chips, chocolates and sweets.
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Keep active as a family
When staying home and social distancing, without access to walks, parks, playgrounds and friends, it may seem near impossible to keep your children active.
We know that physical activity is an important component of healthy growth and development, maintaining a healthy weight, improving cardiovascular fitness and building strong bones and muscles.
While keeping your children (and yourself) physically active during this time may have fallen to the bottom of your priority list, staying active through the remainder of the lockdown is a good way to boost immunity and fight infections, feel less stressed and anxious and improve mood and energy levels.
Try using this time to model healthy behaviours and build your children’s enjoyment of being active through family-based activities.
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