BY: JESSICA SERDIKOFF, RD | www.floptimism.com
I have a job for you this Father’s Day. I know, I know. Today is supposed to be your day, and here I am, assigning you a task – but it’s an important one. I want you to find a mirror, look yourself square in the eye, take a big, deep breath, and say: “I’ve got this.”
I work with a lot of parents – including many, many fathers– who stress big time over their children’s health. I’ve seen the panicked faces and listened to the distraught pleas of fathers whose children won’t touch their vegetables, have an undying love for sweets, or have decided by kindergarten that they will never, not ever, eat an animal again (ever). Moms are certainly not the only ones who feel responsible for raising their kids perfectly, and it’s all too easy to let the pressures of parenthood take over.
Here are the two things I know, both from having parents myself, and from my experience working with families as a registered dietitian:
- No matter how much you try, you will, at some point, mess up; BUT…
- The best thing you can do for your kid’s health is to embrace wellness in your own life first.
Kids are sponges, and they pick up on everything you do and say. So when you’re feeling overwhelmed over how to raise a healthy child, take a look at how you can first and foremost be that positive, genuine role model:
- Practice body positivity and self-compassion.
It’s no secret that the media can be pretty harsh when it comes to female body image, but men face an equally challenging pressure to conform to expectations of their own gender’s physique. You may want to lose weight or build muscle; you may be self-conscious of some body part or another; but being able to approach those “imperfections” with a calm sense of compassion is crucial. You can be kind to yourself while still setting goals for self-improvement. Take note of how you talk about yourself, especially when your children are around. They will look to you as they start to form their own concept of self, and if you exude compassion and self-acceptance, they will be more likely to as well.
- Fill your own diet with nutritious foods.
In other words, walk the walk and talk the talk. You can’t fool kids for very long: if you tell them to drink water and finish their broccoli while you sip on soda and nosh on potato chips, they’re going to catch on. It sends the message that eating healthy isn’t really that important or, perhaps more troubling, that it’s only important as a child. Instead, make a healthier diet an adventure that the entire family embarks on! Explore new foods and flavors together; have conversations after trying something new to see what everyone liked, what they didn’t, and what they might do differently next time; and seek the help of a registered dietitian if you’re really struggling. Your palate takes time to adjust to less processed foods (trust me, I went through it myself), so be patient and persistent. You’ll get there.
- Get connected to food.
Sitting down at the kitchen table to share a meal with your family, where they can see you eating the same foods you encourage them to taste on a regular basis is undoubtedly influential. But fostering a deeper connection to our food, its origins, and how it transforms from a raw ingredient into a much-loved recipe can add a whole new level of appreciation for a health-focused diet. So roll up those sleeves and get your hands dirty: in your own backyard vegetable garden, at a local farm or market, and in your kitchen cooking with and/or for your kids. One of the most positive things you can do is to spark curiosity about food in yourself and in them.
- Engage in physical activity that you actually enjoy.
Exercise isn’t a punishment! It can take some trial and error to find ways of staying active that you look forward to rather than dread, but don’t give up. It’s great if these activities can involve your kids, such as evening bike rides or outdoor games played at family gatherings, but it’s equally important for your kids to see you having fun on your own time as well. Your family may not always share your interests when it comes to physical activity, and that’s ok! We should all feel supported to seek out activities that work for us as individuals, and that includes you.
- Perhaps most importantly, just be there.
When we think of raising healthy kids, it’s easy to think about food and physical activity, but there’s another consideration that runs much deeper. In a world of constant connection, of comparisons and accomplishments, we’re all in a state of go-go-go! We forget the profound importance of unplugging from life’s stresses and reveling in the moment. It doesn’t matter if you’re a stay-at-home dad or one who’s working double shifts throughout the week, when you are home, be home. The quantity of time spent with your family is indeed important, but perhaps more-so is the quality. Put the phone away (and no matter how much they grumble, insist that they do the same, at least sometimes). Make a family night, or morning, or any-time-of-day that works for you. Find what works for your family, and show them that they are a priority.
I know from my work with clients how challenging it can be to effect healthy behavior changes in others. In the end, you can’t really force them to be healthy (though when you’re a parent, you certainly do have more control). You can really only show them the benefits and explore with them ways to make it all enjoyable. Be the change you wish to see, as they say. It’s by far the most crucial first step.
Oh, and one last thing: to all of the moms and kids out there reading this, forget the ties and grilling utensils for a second. Go find Dad and give him a big hug, because one of the best things you can give him is your support.
Happy Father’s Day!