Five commandments of healthy eating for families

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If you pose the question, “do you want your children to grow up fit and healthy?” to any parent, you will be greeted with a unanimous “Yes, of course”. The reality of modern life though can paint a very different picture. Breakfast eaten in the car; a few dollars for a school canteen lunch and three or four different meals, at different times for each family member can ultimately lead to less than ideal family health habits long term. So, here are the rules for a healthy house, no matter how busy you are.

1) Thou shalt eat meals at the table as a family whenever possible.

It does not matter if you only manage to achieve this once each week but the very simple coming together of families over food has a powerful health impact even above and beyond the basic nutritional benefits. Research has shown that families who sit down to enjoy a meal together on four occasions throughout the week have teens who perform better at school; who have higher levels of psycho-social functioning, and who are less likely to be depressed and abuse drugs and/or alcohol. Such findings would suggest that there is something very special about the way families communicate over a meal, so even if you can only mange it a couple of times during the week, sit down to eat dinner together as a family, with the television switched off.

2) Thou shalt be a good role model.

If you do not eat well and rarely exercise, is it surprising that your kids do not either? While a "do as I say, not as I do" approach may seem fair to you, the truth is that kids become like their parents, which basically means that if you are fit and healthy, your kids will be too. Start to look after your own body by feeding it good quality food and moving it regularly. Not only is this role modelling imperative when you have small children, it also means that your life and wellbeing will be improved as you start to feel better, have more energy and keep your own weight under control.

3) Thou shalt only keep foods in the house that you want family members to eat.

Sure you may have foods at home that are "adults only" but on the whole well-balanced meals and snacks should be the focus for all family members. This also means that if there are foods you know your kids should not be eating, it is best to not keep them in the house. Excuses like "but they are for guests", or "only one of my children needs to watch their weight" are ignoring the fact that keeping poor quality, high fat, high calorie foods at home in large volumes basically means that you will eat them. If you don't want your family to eat them, don't buy them.

4) Thou shalt be an active family.

While shopping centres and the movies may be filled with families during weekends and school holidays, it should be remembered that the more recreational time that is spent outdoors, the better. Not only will you move more when you take a trip to the beach, park or bush you also tend to be less seduced by the foods for sale at "family" type activity venues. Commit to getting outdoors and into nature as a family at least once a month and instil this appreciation in your own children so they too can pass a love of outdoor activities on to their own children.

5) Thou shalt be a parent, not a friend.

Somewhere between the 1980s and 1990s parents kind of forgot that it is their role to be direct and firm with their children, particularly in relation to their food intake. Making separate meals for different children, only buying foods that their kids ask for and perhaps not insisting that various dietary habits such as eating vegetables be adhered to have resulted in a cohort of children who eat a limited variety of foods, without many of the key food groups they require for optimal growth and development. Don't be afraid to take control of the food environment in your home – only stock foods that you know your children need and prepare one nutritious meal for the family each night. Insist that food only be eaten at the table and develop a "take it or leave it attitude" – this way children gradually learn what types of foods they need to eat at meals and snacks and if they don't eat it, they will have to go without. Not only does this ensure that the children learn to eat a range of different foods but it helps to avoid kids negotiating to eat pasta, chicken nuggets, toast and fruit instead of their dinner.