Building a healthy family can be overwhelming, especially if you've picked up a few bad habits along the way. It’s easy for parents to get confused about messages that are thrown at us on maintaining a healthy lifestyle through the media.
However, one message that Vanessa Shaw, Head of Dietetics at Great Ormond Street Hospital, thinks is clear, is that we should all be eating at least five pieces of fruit and vegetables a day as part of a healthy lifestyle.
“If parents can get into the routine of simply offering their children a fruit snack in the morning, plus a helping of veg or salad and a piece of fruit for both lunch and the evening meal, then it’s done,” she says.
Five-a-day made easy
For parents who stick to apples and pears, then end up giving their children unhealthy snacks when they get bored of these fruits, Vanessa suggests getting experimental.
One approach is to go with the seasons. So try buying berries like strawberries and raspberries, and soft fruits like peaches and plums, during the summer when they are plentiful and cheap.
In the winter months when there is less variety available, go for tinned fruit – healthy so long as you stick to fruit in juice, rather than sugary syrup.
Dried fruit is an equally good substitute. Options such as apricots, sultanas, raisins, apples and pears give plenty of choice without breaking the budget. These are all readily available in the supermarkets.
A point that brings confusion for many parents is food labelling. These are becoming more standardised but can still be tricky.
Vanessa advises: “Go for the green traffic lights that indicate low salt, fat and sugar. You can buy some foods with red traffic light labelling, as long as it doesn’t make up the majority of your diet.”
It’s always good to check the label, as some food you think might have health benefits may actually be less nutritious than you think.
For example, it’s true that pizza with cheese and salami provides protein and calcium. However, the high salt and fat content will probably outweigh these benefits – so it’s worth checking for red lights.
Does convenience food really save time?
Busy parents often fall into the trap of buying processed food, thinking it is easier to cook. But is it really quicker than cooking with fresh ingredients?
During the 20 minutes it takes to cook a processed meal, plus the time it takes to defrost, you could probably prepare and cook using fresh ingredients.
The key, says Vanessa, is to be organised: “Use ten minutes you have on the train to work to make a shopping list in advance, rather than just buying what you see when you are in the shops – it’s too tempting to pick up the first ready meal that you see rather then buying fresh ingredients.”
Thirty minute recipes
There are some great cook books available with 30 minute recipes, or you can cut out quick and easy recipes from newspapers. There are also lots of healthy recipes on the internet.
Cook double portions one evening and freeze for another day, so you know your frozen food is healthy. And get your children involved in the process of choosing, buying and cooking food.
Healthy at home
So why do some parents find it difficult to stick to a healthy diet?
Vanessa says: “Many parents today come from a generation where sweets rather than healthy foods were given as treats. Some parents don’t have a five-a-day policy themselves, so it’s difficult to enforce this on their kids if they don’t practise what they preach. Parents need to lead by example.”
When it comes to exercise, some parents just aren’t in the habit.
Monica Samuel is a senior physiotherapist working in the chronic fatigue team and in mental health at Great Ormond Street Hospital. The job entails re-educating young people and parents about the type of exercise patients can do everyday.
For families out of the exercise habit, Monica suggests starting with replacing watching TV with a more interactive type of screen watching: the Wii computer consol. This can be a great stepping stone from a sedentary lifestyle to more activity.
She says: “The whole family can get really active with one of these. It might also get them interested in outdoor sport. It’s a good place to get started to encourage exercise in the outside world.”
Simple changes for a healthier family
Then there are the more basic changes that families can make. And getting into a healthy routine needn’t mean drastic changes, such as joining a gym.
Monica says: “Simply walking to the supermarket rather than driving can help. Use what you do already, such as housework or caring for pets, such as walking the dog.
"It’s about using what is readily available”, says Monica, “and getting your children to take responsibility and ownership. If they are praised for the help they give then they will be encouraged to do more and this starts a positive cycle.”
It can be difficult for parents to supervise their children if they are working. Leaving a list of chores and suggested activities that parents expect to be completed is one way of keeping tabs.
Fit parents, fit kids
Seeing parents exercise is also likely to encourage young people to pick up good habits. If you find it difficult to fit in exercise, try something that involves the whole family, such as going for bike rides together at the weekend.
Monica acknowledges: “Some parents may never have had exercise as part of their lives so may find the media focus on keeping fit overwhelming. Often, avoiding exercise comes from fear of the unknown, so it is about finding the confidence to do things such as taking your child swimming.”
Taking action around the home is a good way to bridge the gap first.