Keeping a whole family healthy takes some serious work—and when you’re strapped for time, it’s tempting to let things slide. But staying in tip-top shape is easier than you might think. Try these nine simple tips to keep your whole clan fit and happy.
1. Banish sugar.
Seriously: it’s the fastest, easiest way for a busy family to improve overall health. If you can’t completely eliminate it, cut way back.
Drink less juice: one small glass has about 25 grams of sugar, as much as a soda; serve chilled hibiscus, apple, or blueberry tea with breakfast instead.
Beware of hidden sugars in products like peanut butter, nondairy milk, ketchup, and others; look for unsweetened versions. If you do buy packaged snacks, look at the sugar content, and stick to those with 10 grams or less per serving. And serve a small portion of a low-sugar dessert (berries with whipped cream, pears and dark chocolate, reduced sugar ice cream) with meals; it neutralizes the idea that dessert is a reward, and makes the sweet stuff less of a Holy Grail.
2. Cook slowly.
Slow cookers are the fastest way to make a home-cooked meal. While your coffee’s brewing in the morning, fill your crockpot with meat, beans, or both; add broth, sauce, or water and a handful of spices, and turn it on low. When you come home, stir in frozen vegetables; you’ll have a ready-to-eat meal by the time you set the table. Family-friendly suggestions: pulled chicken, barbecue brisket, turkey chili, pot roast, short ribs, tacos, black bean soup, and white beans with kale. Make way more than you need, and freeze extras for easy future meals.
When slow cooking won’t work, embrace your microwave. Skip the high-fat, high-sodium prepackaged meals, and look for instant or frozen foods with less than 450 mg of sodium, 300 to 500 calories, 10 to 20 grams of protein, and less than 4 grams of saturated fat. Or make your own ultra-fast, zap-able meals:
- Microwave chopped vegetables with scrambled eggs and cheese, for an instant omelet.
- Combine blueberries, mashed banana, oats, ground flax, and an egg, and microwave to make a fast, hot muffin.
- Microwave preseasoned chicken fajitas and peppers until done, and serve with tortillas for instant dinner.
- Combine frozen vegetable mix with canned chickpeas, coconut milk and curry paste, and microwave until hot for vegetarian curry.
4. Turn TV time into fitness hour.
Get your little potatoes off the couch, and let them watch the tube if they’re moving too. Do crunches, squats, or jumping jacks during commercials. Stretch or jog in place while channel surfing. Keep a set of hand weights in a basket by the sofa, and bust out some curls or overhead presses during your favorite show. Do tricep dips or incline pushups, using the couch as a prop. Make it a contest: whoever does the most burpees gets control of the remote.
5. Make breakfast easy.
It’s the most skipped meal, and that has health consequences, especially for young ones: kids who skip breakfast have diminished academic performance, a greater risk of being overweight, and a lower fitness level. Stock up on quick morning meals-to-go: make smoothies the night before and freeze in ziplock bags, or keep a bowl of boiled eggs, small containers of fruit, and individual packets of almond butter ready for grab-and-go. Give kids and teens a well-designed multivitamin and mineral to fill in any nutritional gaps. Omega-3 fats are also important, especially if your kids don’t eat fish; look for kid-friendly, flavored versions. Take a good vitamin D supplement, especially if kids (or parents) aren’t outdoorsy. And if you’re expecting, choose a balanced prenatal formula designed for daily use.
6. Keep your crew well.
Busy families don’t have time to be sick! Keep kids healthy with safe, effective immune-boosting supplements. For daily maintenance, use probiotics; dozens of studies have confirmed their ability to reduce allergy symptoms, improve immunity, lower inflammation, and more. If your family does get infected, try elderberry, echinacea, and andrographis; look for combination formulas in capsules or alcohol-free tinctures for the whole family. Or try a kid-friendly nasal wash with xylitol. And wash your hands relentlessly. That 30-second ritual can save you days of sickness from colds or flu.
7. Prioritize sleep.
It’s easy to skimp on the Zzz’s when life is full. But lack of sleep can impact brain development, immune function, mood, even weight: kids who don’t get enough sleep are at higher risk of being obese as adults. To encourage a restful night, shut down electronics at least 30 minutes before bedtime, and start dimming lights and noise level throughout the house. For younger kids, create a nighttime ritual: brush teeth, read a story, sing a song. If kids struggle with sleep, try gentle herbs like passionflower, chamomile, or catnip. Look for them as single or combination formulas in capsules or alcohol-free tinctures. Or choose a homeopathic sleep remedy designed for kids; they’re safe enough even for little ones.
8. Decrease stress.
You may think your kids are too young to be burdened, but studies show even school-age children may have high levels of chronic tension and anxiety. If your kids struggle with stress, help them cope; first, be sure they’re getting enough sleep and good nutrition. Don’t overschedule them; unstructured down time is the fastest rejuvenator for kids (and grown-ups). Keep your home environment calm and peaceful, especially during high-rush, stress-prone times like mornings. And be sure to set a good example; it’s hard to teach kids balance when you’re a basket case. You can also support your tech-loving kids with apps. One to try: HelloMind, a kid-focused app that offers guided hypnosis sessions.
9. Water your flowers.
Be sure your family is drinking enough water; dehydration can lead to headaches, muscle cramps, even changes in mood. Encourage hydration by keeping water around; buy everyone his or her own reusable water bottle and post a reminder note on the front door to take water bottles before leaving the house. Other easy tips:
- Stock up on cans of sugar-free, fruit-flavored fizzy water to encourage sipping.
- Fill a big jar or pitcher with water and slices of orange or sprigs of mint for flavoring.
- Invest in a countertop water dispenser; kids love the novelty of refilling their own glasses.
- Fill ice cube trays with diluted fruit juice and berries and freeze, to add novelty to iced water.
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Prenatal to Pre-teen: Supplements for every age
Busy schedules mean you and your family may not be getting all the nutrition you need. Fill in the gaps with these important supplements:
Multivitamins. Because pregnancy increases your daily requirements for vitamins and nutrients, it’s best to choose a formula specifically designed for pregnancy. Be sure it contains enough vitamin B6, which can help with nausea, and no more than 10,000 IU of vitamin A, which can be toxic. You may also need to supplement with some of the nutrients listed below.
Calcium prevents bone loss during pregnancy, and helps build baby’s bones. The standard recommendation is 1,000 mg per day, but pregnant and/or nursing women need more—1,200 to 1,400 mg per day. Most multis don’t contain enough, so look for another calcium supplement that also provides magnesium.
Iron. As the body produces more blood during pregnancy, iron is essential for manufacturing red blood cells, and for delivering oxygen to the developing fetus. For pregnant women, about 30 mg per day is recommended. Look for nonconstipating formulas if you struggle with regularity.
Folate. This B vitamin helps prevent neural tube defects and brain and spinal cord abnormalities. Recommended dosage for pregnant moms and women of childbearing age is 600 to 800 mcg per day. Choose folate over folic acid, the synthetic form.
DHA. Omega-3 fatty acids, especially DHA, are critical for your baby’s brain development, both before birth and during nursing. Omega 3s also reduce asthma risk and reduce the risk of premature labor. Shoot for 650 mg of omega-3 fats, of which 300 mg are DHA.
Kids, Tweens, and Teens
Multivitamin/mineral. Because kids need so many nutrients, it’s best to choose a well-designed, whole-foods multi. Children under the age of 13 should take a formula designed for kids. Teens can take half the dose of most adult formulas. Multis don’t usually contain enough D or bone-supporting minerals, so additional supplementation is probably necessary. Additionally, menstruating girls need extra iron, around 15 mg per day.
Vitamin D. It’s critical for building strong bones and supporting immune health, and may help prevent depression during winter months. Many kids are deficient, especially since the bulk of their days during the school year are spent inside, so supplements are important. Recommended dosages range from 500 to 2,000 IU per day.
Zinc. This trace mineral is critical for growth and healthy immune function, and for sexual development at puberty. If your child doesn’t eat meat or seafood, he or she may need supplements. Recommended doses range from 4 to 11 mg of zinc per day, depending on age.
Bone supplements. If your kids and teens don’t eat dairy or lots of vegetables, make sure they get the nutrients they need for strong teeth and bones. Kids 1 to 3 need 700 mg of calcium a day; kids 4 to 8 need 1,000 mg, and those 9 and up need 1,300 mg. Look for a calcium supplement that includes these amounts, along with magnesium, vitamin K, and vitamin D, if your kid’s not getting enough from other sources.
Omega-3s. Especially important for kids and teens, omega-3s may improve ADHD symptoms in kids under 12. They’re also essential for reducing diabetes risk, improving asthma symptoms, and protecting against depression. Recommended doses range from 300 to 1,000 mg per day; be sure you choose a high-quality formula that’s tested for impurities.
Probiotics. Healthy bacteria are important for gut health and immunity, and can also help reduce food sensitivities, protect against allergies and asthma, and improve immunity. For little kids, look for formulas specifically designed for younger ages; tweens and teens can take adult probiotics. Look for those with a broad spectrum of strains; typical doses range from 1 to 10 billion.