Niha Zubair, Arivale Clinical Research Scientist, PhD
Fill in the blank: Having kids is __________ .
If you finished that sentence with some form of “exhausting,” “busy,” or “depleting,” you’re not alone. Parenting can be all of those things, and admitting the struggle doesn’t diminish the good that comes with kids.
When my daughter was born, I quickly realized I wasn’t fully prepared to juggle work and motherhood – not to mention the guilt I felt over doing something just for myself. Even as a professional health coach, I sometimes struggle to make a nutritious dinner at the end of a long day or to conjure up the energy for exercise before work.
The good news is it’s possible to reach your health goals while crushing the parenthood game. (Also, it’s OK if dinner in a pinch consists of scrambled eggs and pancakes – as long as they’re whole grain and low in sugar.) Check out these 18 tips!
Healthy eating doesn’t have to mean spending two hours in the kitchen on a Monday night. It can be fast, affordable, and easy. Here are a few ideas to keep in mind as you create healthy meals for the whole family:
1. You’re not a short order cook.
It’s your job to provide regular meals; it’s your child’s job to decide if and how much they eat. For especially picky eaters, make sure each meal contains one food they like and then alter the rest based on your own preferences.
2. Get everyone involved.
Meal planning, grocery shopping, and meal prep can all have age-appropriate involvement. Try writing a list of 10 family-favorite meals. Then allow each child to choose one for the next week. You may have tacos four times in a month, but it’s an easy meal that everyone will enjoy. Swap ground beef for ground turkey or black beans and load up with veggies, avocado, and pico de gallo to make it a balanced meal.
3. Use the Healthy Plate Model.
Making half your plate vegetables adds nutrients and filling fiber without many calories. Split the remaining half of the plate with lean protein and complex carbohydrates for a satisfying meal.
4. Lead by example.
A child won’t learn to eat vegetables if you don’t model it, again and again and again… (Note: It takes up to eight exposures to a new food for a child to develop a taste for it1.)
5. Make big meals on the weekend and freeze half.
One batch of vegetarian chili or lasagna can be easily doubled and frozen for a quick meal during the week.
6. Plan meals ahead of time.
Keep the plan posted somewhere visible so all members of the family know what’s coming up and enlist your kids in helping with prepping ingredients.
7. Use healthy convenience foods.
Pre-cut vegetables, frozen grains, canned beans, rotisserie chicken, and marinated tofu all cut down on prep time immensely. Want dinner on the table in 10 minutes? Toss frozen stir-fry vegetables and shelled edamame into a pan with a little avocado oil and garlic. Microwave a bag of frozen brown rice per the directions. When the vegetables are cooked through and the rice is hot, add a drizzle of low-sodium soy sauce. Voila! Healthy dinner in 10 minutes with no chopping.
Move Your Body
Struggling to fit exercise into your busy routine? This is one of the biggest struggles I hear from parents. It can take time to find your exercise rhythm. Go easy on yourself and get moving with these tips:
1. Something is better than nothing.
If you’re instantly defeated at the thought of scheduling workouts every day, then scale back and start with an achievable amount.
2. Put it on the calendar.
Schedule time for exercise at the start of every week so you’re less likely to fill the time with other tasks.
3. Move more.
Jog the stairs in your office building during lunch, walk laps around the block with a friend, or do squats at your desk.
4. Stand more.
Simply standing for part of the work day can benefit your health2,3.
5. Include your kids.
There are more and more fitness programs popping up that include stroller-age kids. For older kids, even a game of tag or a bike ride can be effective exercise. Family members of all ages can enjoy an evening walk.
6. Use their sports time as your sports time.
If you usually wait in the car during your kid’s soccer practice, change it up by walking around the field or up the stadium stairs while they play.
7. Reengage with activities you used to enjoy.
Exercise is most sustainable when it’s enjoyable. What did you like to do in the past?
Support Your Emotional Health
Oh, the highs and lows of parenthood. There’s nothing quite like watching your child grow and learn, but the emotional impact of being responsible for other humans can take a toll. High stress levels can impact your physical health by increasing cortisol production, which may affect weight loss, sleep quality, blood pressure, digestion, and more4. Emotional health is just as important as exercise and nutrition for your wellness.
1. Advocate for yourself.
Self-sacrifice will not pay off for you in the end. Talk to your support system (partner, neighbors, family, friends) about your biggest health priorities.
2. Delegate certain tasks.
Yes, you may be the best or fastest at completing a certain task, but it’s probably using a lot of your time and energy – both physical and emotional – to complete everything on that to-do list. Hand something off to another member of the household, then grit your teeth while they learn to master it.
3. Build a regular stress-management practice.
We know you’re super busy, but even a five-minute mindfulness meditation or progressive muscle relaxation practice at the beginning or end of the day can go a long way. If you don’t even have five minutes, then simply take deep breaths – prolonging the exhale – throughout your day to calm down your “fight or flight” nervous system.
4. Carve out “me time.”
Even a few minutes of self-care time to take a shower, read a book, or drink a cup of tea can be helpful for lowering stress levels – and that supports your other health goals.
Our barriers to reaching health goals are as personal as the goals themselves. Take time to think about your biggest challenges and brainstorm approaches that will work for you. Baby steps can still get you there in the end.
Maier A, Chabanet C, Schaal B, Issanchou S, Leathwood P. (2007). “Effects of repeated exposure on acceptance of initially disliked vegetables in 7-month old infants.” Food Quality and Preference, Volume 18, Issue 8, December 2007, Pages 1023-1032
“What are the risks of sitting too much?” The Mayo Clinic. May 2018. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/expert-answers/sitting/faq-20058005
Dutta N, Koepp GA, Stovitz SD, Levine JA, Pereira MA. (2014). “Using Sit-Stand Workstations to Decrease Sedentary Time in Office Workers: A Randomized Crossover Trial.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 11(7), 6653–6665. http://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph110706653
- Konturek PC, Brzozowski T, Konturek SJ. (2011). “Stress and the Gut: Pathophysiology, Clinical Consequences, Diagnostic Approach, and Treatment Options.” Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology 2011, 62, 6, 591 – 599.