5 Tips and Tricks to Create Healthy Habits
Published on: May 31, 2019
Habits, good or bad, are formed throughout our lives and stay with us. Suzanne gives us strategies to ensure that the habits we form serve our mind and body in a positive way, using the example of healthy eating.
By Suzanne Van de Venne
Imagine you would have to consciously think about how to brush your teeth, tie your shoelaces, or drive a car. That would complicate our life immensely right? 40 to 95% of human behavior — how we think, what we say, and our overall actions — falls into the habit category. Said differently, we are on auto-pilot half the time.
Now, is that good or bad? On one hand, it’s a blessing as it means that we created automated behavior that doesn’t take up a lot of thinking space in our brain. But on the other hand, if we created habits that don’t serve us for the short or long term, we execute these actions on automatic pilot as well. Examples like waking up and immediately checking your phone or getting a coffee whenever you are bored.
Children don’t do what you say, they do what you do
As parents, we have a huge impact on the habits our children create. Over the past years, it has been my passion and obsession to study healthy habits for our daily lives and apply these to my family and myself. Please note that it doesn’t matter how successful or unsuccessful you are right now. What really matters is how you can move forward from the place you currently are in.
There are many types of healthy habits I could discuss here, for example, eating well, forming an active lifestyle, sleeping and so on.
Many of us struggle most with ‘How to get our children to adopt healthy eating habits’, I will use that as an example in this article. You will, no doubt, agree that the same principles apply to other areas also.
1. Children don’t do what you say, they do what you do
It is good to know that you have the ultimate tool at your disposal to form great eating habits with your kids: yourself. You can preach all you want, up until the age of 7, children rely mostly on the copy-what-mom-and-dad-do strategy beautifully illustrated by Bruce H. Lipton’s Biology of Belief. In a nutshell: “If this is what keeps my parents alive, it is probably going to keep me alive as well”, and “Therefore, I would do well to adopt similar behaviors as they do”. Hence, you eating and enjoying your veggies (even if you don’t really like them), will help convince your child to eat them without much questioning. Providing the example is leveraging a biological mechanism built into our genes.
As an example, after my youngest daughter was old enough to eat real food, we stopped making special food (kids food) for them. My daughters of 3 and 5 now eat what we eat and doesn’t know any better. We eat it, they eat it.
2. The power of repetition
A second guideline to keep in mind is that great eating habits are not formed in a day. Although powerful, the behavior copying ability of our children needs reinforcement. The more you demonstrate and repeat a desired behavior, the more your child’s brain is going to associate this habit positively.
I had the ‘pleasure’ of my own mother demonstrating this to me and my siblings with cabbage. Neither I nor my three siblings liked cabbage at all. But instead of avoiding the vegetable altogether, my mother took a different approach. For ten days straight, we were presented with the same cabbage and apple slaw. Rather than shying away from the vegetable, mum exposed our pallets to cabbage until we got used to it. We did not have to eat a whole plate but the rule was three spoons minimum. By the end of the ‘cabbage festival’, all of us were duly eating our share (and even starting to enjoy it). Repeating a familiar recipe on a weekly basis will help your children to get familiar with the new taste hopefully.
3. The environment
This is one of the strongest drivers of habit forming. As Psychologist Kurt Lewis (1936) stated: “Behavior is a function of the person in their environment”. This means that the more obviously available a product or service is to us, the more likely we are to try it. So imagine the whole fridge filled with healthy food. This would make it more likely that our children (and us) will eat healthy food. Or on the contrary, if there is unhealthy food available in our environment, there is a high chance we will consume it.
As parents, we can become the architect of the environment to help our children create healthy habits. Examples are healthy snacks when they get back from school or healthy choices for breakfast in the morning. On the other hand, if there are unhealthy snacks available, they will easily start eating these and ask for more. In our family, we have set rules around when they can have party food. My daughters don’t ask for sweets during the week as we don’t give it. As this is the habit, they stopped asking.
4. Serve yourself consistency
Other tips and tricks on having your kids eat well are allowing them to serve themselves. If a child serves their own plate, he/she automatically has a responsibility towards what is on the plate. It doesn’t mean that they have to finish what is on the plate but it gives them more responsibility and sometimes we tend to overestimate what our children eat. Remember that the stomach is roughly the size of your fist so a toddler’s stomach simply can’t hold that much food.
We also formed a habit of using consistent language around the dinner table. Food that we want our daughters to eat is called ‘grow food’ — Food that makes you healthy, strong, and makes your tummy say: “Thank you”. You can eat as much of grow food as you like. The opposite of ‘grow food’ is ‘party food’. This is food that is not the healthiest but food that you don’t want to deny your child either. It is worth noting that rewarding grow food with candy (party food) is not a great strategy. The idea here is that children learn to understand they need good fuel to become strong and healthy.
5. Creating lasting change
In this last part, I want to discuss the feeling that creating healthy habits and lasting change can be difficult or overwhelming at times. Kaizen (a Japanese philosopher) suggests that instead of reaching your goals by making drastic changes, to try and be 1% better every day.
Drastic changes hardly ever do good in the long term as you mostly rely on motivation. We need a gentle and solid approach in which we adapt to the new situation and habits.
Your goal might be to create healthy eaters and so maybe today you have the veggies on the table and they don’t eat it, tomorrow they will smell it, the day after they put it on their plate, etc. Start very small but do take steps in your desired direction, keeping your goal in your mind.
Although this article focuses on healthy eating habits, the same principles go for other areas in our family life. Establish healthy exercise habits by walking, taking the stairs, riding a bike with your children, or joining them in the swimming pool. The same goes for sleep. A slightly controversial topic but one thing virtually every author agrees on is that consistency and predictability are important.
If you are inspired by the idea of forming healthy habits for yourself and your family and want to take action, choose one habit you want to put your focus on. Then for the next weeks, apply the principles explained above to build the habit. Remember, we first need to establish the habit before we can improve it, as “success is the product of daily habits”.
About the Author
Suzanne is a Certified Health Coach living in Bangkok with her husband and two daughters of 3 and 5 years old. Her passion is to empower women to create healthy habits that fit into their busy lives to attain sustainable results. Find out more about her work or upcoming workshops: www.suzannevandevenne.com or email at Suzanne@suzannevandevenne.com; FB: @ Suzanne van de Venne
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