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How to teach your kids healthy habits

How to teach your kids healthy habits

Thinking about your overall wellness - nutrition, mental health, exercise - can begin in childhood

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Being well is more than not succumbing to the flu, particularly when it comes to children.

During younger childhood, from "terrible twos" toddlers to school-aged children as old as 8, independence is a trait-in-training. Children try to strike out on their own paths, but parents still play a vital role in their kid's development.

"Developing healthy habits early on is great. We should model our behaviors for children because they really want to be like their parents, their teachers, their coaches or whoever is around and is the adult figure in their life," said Linda Pecchia, a health coach and assistant director of the Garden State Academy Preschool of the Arts in Galloway Township. "It's a trickle-down effect."

That goes for a child's wellness too. A 2014 study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a philanthropic group dedicated to public health, said childhood wellness can't be tracked separately by its physical, nutritional or mental aspects. They flow and feed into each other.

Experts and parents offered their tips to help kids get that well-rounded wellness education.


The President's Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition says 28 percent of Americans 6 years old and older are physically inactive. At the same time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said physical activity in childhood helps control weight, build up bones and muscles, as well as reduce stress and increase self-esteem.

Even if children can't palm a basketball or completely grasp nuances in figure skating, it doesn't mean they shouldn't try to be active.

•Variety is the spice of activity. It doesn't do any good pushing your child into a sport or activity they aren't interested in. If you get a young child involved in a lot of different organized and non-organized activities - from a sport to kid-centric gym classes - they're more likely to find a physical outlet they'll enjoy.

Pecchia recommends reaching out to individual city's and township's recreation departments to see what classes are available locally.

•Get fit indoors. Yes, the snow and cold may make outdoor activities miserable, but that doesn't mean you should shirk a workout. Build a fort or have a dance party to burn off energy on a rainy day.

Brittany Hiller, of Egg Harbor Township, often works out at home, and her 3-year-old daughter Peyton follows along, even if she's not doing everything as the DVD instructor demonstrates. "You really need to be creative with it and make it fun," Hiller said. "Think of what a 3-year-old would want to do."

•Set boundaries for screen time. Limit your child's exposure to television, video games and other digital interfaces. Research shows more screen time not only digs into time children can be playing outside, but can affect their school grades as well.

If you need a little help turning your children away from the boob tube, there are several mobile apps that can restrict or block activities on smart devices (Mobile Guardian and Screen Time Parental Control are examples).


Obesity and diabetes have been two of the most prevalent health problems affecting children in the last few decades. Though obesity in children ages 2 to 5 has decreased from 13.9 percent in 2003-2004 to 8.4 percent in 2011-2012, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there's still more work to be done.

"There are statistics that show this generation might be the first generation of children that don't outlive their parents," Pecchia said. "It's an epidemic."

•Don't give in to your child's unhealthy or unchanging food options. Children are notoriously picky eaters, as they're developing what they have a taste for and what they'd likely spit out or give to the dog instead. Those habits can be more detrimental in the long run if they only want chicken nuggets and macaroni and cheese. Pecchia recommends "hiding" certain foods in more desirable forms: Think shredded carrot-and-apple muffins, or spinach on pizza.

•Kitchen and shopping dates with your kids. Exposing children to new foods can help them get excited about varying their diets. Hiller said she takes Peyton to the grocery store. If they're wheeling through the produce aisle and Peyton points at something she wants to try, Hiller said she picks it up.

"She helps me in the kitchen, washing berries and vegetables," said Hiller, 28, whose daughter attends Garden State Academy. The school's emphasis on healthy behaviors follows Peyton back home, Hiller said.

•Keep unhealthy foods out of sight, and healthier options within reach. Junk food wasn't really limited for Hiller when she was growing up. She said chips, cookies and high-fructose corn syrup-laden fruit snacks were stored in a cabinet, where she'd inevitably find herself reaching into after school. These days, there's a bowl of apples on the kitchen island that Peyton can reach from a chair, Hiller said. Cookies and crackers are in the harder-to-access pantry.

Mental health

It's easy to think children don't have the stresses their parents have, but that doesn't mean they don't get stressed or anxious.

•Get beneath the temper tantrums. There's an emotion or reason behind the wailing, the fist-flailing and the scene-making. Hiller said she emphasizes with Peyton to use her words when she gets angry or frustrated. Getting Peyton to share her feelings now will help keep the parents in the loop in the future, Hiller said.

•The mirror effect. Children learn a lot of their ethical values from the adults in their lives, said Richard Weissbourd, a Harvard psychologist, in a 2014 Washington Post article. To increase their empathy and become a better role model, Weissbourd suggests doing community service with your child, or asking children about any ethical dilemmas they've dealt with.

•Don't dismiss a child's feelings. Pecchia said it's easy for a parent to say "Everything's fine" when a child gets anxious or angry about something. Instead, Pecchia recommends listening to your child when they get scared or anxious. For example, if a child is scared about a dog growling, though it usually has a nice disposition, a parent can try to explain to the child that the dog hurt its paw and is acting differently because it's in pain.

"Give them the tools to figure out the solutions," she said.

Contact Sara Tracey:



wellness events

Milton and Betty Katz Jewish Community Center will host a Kids Sports and Fitness Festival from

10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday at the center at 501 North Jerome Ave., Margate. Admission is free. For more information, call Julie Fink at 609-822-1167 ext. 159, visit or email

"Eat Well, Be Well" workshop will be conducted

6 p.m. March 26 at the Garden State Academy Preschool of the Arts,

5 East Jimmie Leeds Road, Galloway Township. The activities will focus on healthy eating for families. The event is free. To reserve a spot, call 609-241-1304 or contact Linda Pecchia at

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