Tips to Live By

10 Tips for Managing a Healthy Household

Aug. 9, 2023 - Katie McCallum

Being a parent is one of the toughest jobs in the world, if not the toughest. There's a laundry list of reasons for this, including sometimes double, triple or even quadruple the laundry.

On the more serious side of what makes being a parent so hard is the responsibility of juggling a fast-paced, uber-busy life with managing a happy, healthy household.

The "healthy" part is a huge challenge in itself. Living a healthy lifestyle is hard enough for adults, who know the long-term benefits it brings. Getting your kids to buy into healthy choices, too? It's certainly no picnic. Accomplishing it without arguments or complaints? Well, that can feel almost impossible.

"It's not easy," says Dr. Alexander Laceras, a family medicine doctor at Houston Methodist. "The behaviors that benefit our physical health and mental well-being require discipline and self-control. And those are things a child is often still developing and honing."

Dr. Laceras says the best thing a parent can do is to be a good role model for the healthy behaviors you want your kids to emulate.

"Your child is watching, so it's important for you to set the example yourself of what a healthy lifestyle should look like," adds Dr. Laceras.

Here are Dr. Laceras's tips for managing a healthy household:

1. Get active

"Physical activity benefits overall health, helping build strong muscles and bones, improving mood, promoting good heart health and more," says Dr. Laceras. "Current guidelines are for children and adolescents to get at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day."

Depending on your child's age, here are some ways to work in plenty of physical activity:

  • Encourage participation in P.E. class and recess
  • Suggest active hobbies, like jumping rope, swimming, bike riding, rollerblading, hiking or gardening
  • Visit the local park or playscape (jungle gyms, hopscotch and other games are great ways to strengthen bones and muscles)
  • Try organized sports or activities, like soccer, basketball, baseball or softball, martial arts, dance or ballet
  • Go for family walks

All the focus shouldn't go toward ensuring children are active. Adults should get 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each week, which works out to a little under 25 minutes per day.

2. Prioritize nutritious foods

"Research shows that a parent's nutritional habits shape a child's future eating behavior and food choices," says Dr. Laceras. "It's important for parents to show kids what a healthy diet looks like while cooking at home as well as when ordering at a restaurant."

Here are five keys to healthy eating:

  • Eat well-balanced meals, full of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean protein, low-fat dairy, beans, legumes, nuts and seeds
  • Choose whole foods as often as possible, which is often the foods found on the outer perimeter of the grocery store or ones that are only minimally processed before packaging
  • Avoid unhealthy cooking methods and flavoring techniques, like frying and adding unnecessary cheese or butter
  • Serve proper portion sizes, which can vary by age and other factors — so consider using MyPlate Plan as a guide
  • Keep healthy snacks readily available, such as fruit, peanut butter and celery sticks, carrots and hummus, low-fat yogurt topped with fruit, and peanut butter spread on whole grain crackers

3. Limit processed foods

No food should be completely off limits, but processed foods shouldn't be staples in your child's diet. (That's advice adults should heed too, considering that the NIH estimates almost 60% of the average American's calories come from processed foods.)

"Processed foods are typically high in additives like salt, saturated fats and added sugar, or contain trans fats," says Dr. Laceras. "These can be harmful to your child's health and should be limited."

(Related: What Happens If You Eat Too Much Salt?)

Processed foods are often primarily "empty calories" — meaning they're devoid of any meaningful nutrition, with the calories serving no purpose beyond immediate energy. And since they also tend to be calorie-dense, they can contribute to weight gain.

Examples of processed foods to limit include:

  • Soft drinks, sports drinks, sweet tea and lemonade
  • Junk food, fast food and frozen meals
  • Candy, including hard candies, chocolate bars and sweet or sour chews
  • Cakes, cookies, donuts and packaged baked goods

"Always check nutrition labels when choosing food products to give your kids," says Dr. Laceras. "You might assume a granola bar or on-the-go trail mix is a healthy snack option, but these can sometimes be packed with added sugar and other refined ingredients."

(Related: 5 Nutrition Label Red Flags to Watch Out For)

4. Encourage good sleep habits and a consistent sleep schedule

"Sleep is essential to good health, and kids need more sleep than their parents," says Dr. Laceras. "While adults only need around eight hours per night, kids need 10 hours or more depending on their age."

Alongside getting enough sleep, it's important for kids to get good sleep.

Here are sleep hygiene tips to help your kids get the most out of their sleep:

  • Know how much sleep your child needs and develop a schedule
  • Go to bed the same time every night, even on weekends
  • Create a sleep-promoting environment, like keeping the room cool, dark, quiet and free of devices
  • Turn devices and TVs off about an hour before bedtime
  • Try a wind-down routine, such as reading or taking a warm bath before bed

"Keeping devices out of bedrooms at bedtime can be a particularly important rule to put in place," says Dr. Laceras. "Studies show that kids who have their phone in their rooms sleep less overall, sometimes an hour less per night."

(Related: Screen Time Before Bed: How Bad Is It?)

5. Set a limit on screen time

Speaking of smartphones: They certainly bring some benefits to a family trying to stay connected — but there are downsides, too.

"It's important to consider how your child is using their device, as well as when and how often," says Dr. Laceras. "Every parent will have their own set of rules, but a general rule of thumb is to limit kids to around two hours of screen time per day, and only after completing responsibilities like homework and chores."

6. Reinforce the importance of healthy basics

Help your kids understand the importance of healthy basics, like putting on their seatbelt when they get in the car. Others priority habits to develop:

7. Encourage open communication

The specifics may differ but, like adults, kids get stressed, too.

Keep an open line of communication between you and your child, reminding them that they can always talk to you about what they're feeling or what might be bothering them.

"Setting aside quality time for the family to spend together is a great way to build a strong relationship of trust and support between you and your children," says Dr. Laceras. "Every child is different, but this can help your child feel more comfortable with coming to you about a problem, instead of keeping negative thoughts and feelings inside and letting them fester."

8. Know the warning signs of declining mental health

According to the CDC, more than a third of high school students report experiencing poor mental health in recent years, so it's important for parents to know what anxiety or depression can look like in a kid.

Warning signs that your child might be struggling with their mental health include:

  • Lack of motivation
  • Physical exhaustion
  • Irritability
  • Uncharacteristic mood states
  • New sensitivity to criticism
  • Disconnecting from others
  • Not enjoying things you know they love

Some of these won't be unfamiliar or unusual to parents of older kids and teens, but if you notice several at once, and they persist, consider talking to your child or reaching out for help.

"Your family medicine doctor can provide resources for supporting your child's mental health," says Dr. Laceras. "He or she can also connect you with a mental health provider."

9. Make time to socialize

"Community is so important in a child's development," says Dr. Laceras. "Socialization helps develop communication and cooperative skills, but it's also important for building self-esteem, shaping identity and providing a sense of security."

And socializing with friends or peers shouldn't only happen via a smartphone — though your child may prefer it this way. Be sure to encourage them to set their phone down and make time for in-person socialization, too.

10. Stay up-to-date on health checkups and vaccinations

Last, but as Dr. Laceras stresses, not least, make time for annual doctor's appointments.

"Staying healthy means working with your family medicine doctor to set health goals, as well as checking in regularly to ensure your child's health is on the right track," says Dr. Laceras. "If you're keeping up with routine visits, your doctor will let you know when your child might need certain vaccinations or other health checks."

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