You've had one of those days where you want to hit the restart button, where your boss and clients and even the universe have seemingly conspired to make every conceivable moment of your day excruciatingly difficult.
Its aftermath makes you want to jump on the next direct flight to Honolulu for a three-week secluded holiday. No kids, no significant other, no pets; just you and maybe a gorgeous someone to serve drinks.
You know the kind of day I'm talking about, right?
On those days, dinner might be the last thing on your mind, yet you've got crabby, starving kids or adolescents demanding you visit their favorite burger joint. As they continue to beg, resistance becomes futile as exhaustion and hunger overpower every last ounce of willpower.
I know the feeling. Raising two teenage boys and running two businesses leave little time to create a healthy meal my kids will actually eat. Yet I knew families that seemingly effortlessly manage such responsibilities without starting civil war over steamed broccoli.
I wanted to know how they did it, so I talked with those families. I read blogs. I scoured studies. From that research came these six habits that families habitually employ for healthy kids and adolescents:
They Get Their Kids Involved in Prep
Children and adolescents crave purpose -- they want to feel important. When you involve them in meal preparation, you reduce your workload and establish lifelong habits. Younger kids can set the table or tear lettuce. Adolescents can chop, slice or otherwise prep fresh meal ingredients.
One study found Cooking with Kids (CWK), an experiential school-based food education program that got kids involved with cooking, increased fruit and vegetable consumption as well as fostered self-sufficiency and an optimistic attitude about cooking among these fourth-grade children. Researchers noted these "are factors important to healthful eating and obesity prevention."
They Make Meals Fun, Creative and Appealing
Ever employed a stern you-will-eat-this-or-else attitude? How did that work for you?
I learned healthy families make mealtime enjoyable experiences that foster creativity and make food fun rather than obligatory. One mom I spoke with redesigned food into animal shapes. Broccoli became "trees" dunked in "mud" (hummus). Sounds silly, right? Not if you have a 4-year-old who you've been hitherto unsuccessfully persuading to eat cruciferous vegetables.
Another family had a contest to see how many colors their kids could fit onto one plate. They were onto something: One study found seven different items and six different colors on a plate most appealed to kids. (Adults, on the other hand, preferred only three items and three colors. No wonder mealtime becomes such a struggle: We see food differently than our kids do.)
Healthy families also keep a wide variety of colorful snacks easily accessible so their kids or adolescents can grab and go. One study with 96 college kids put fruit and veggies in clear or opaque bowls either nearby or about seven feet away. No surprise: The closer bowls got more attention.
If researchers could get college students to eat healthier, there's hope for your finicky 9-year-old. Keep fresh fruit, hummus and kale chips, and veggies with guacamole on your coffee table or other accessible area and you'll likely find they reach for healthy foods more often.
They Skip Sugary Beverages
I don't need to tell you studies associate soda intake with adolescent weight gain. What might surprise you is that fruit juice, once the healthy drink alternative, can have more sugar than soda. Those extra calories can find a quick home around your child's waistline: One study with children found fruit juice intake increased weight gain.
Manufacturers know kids love sweet, fizzy juices, hence the ever-growing array of fructose-fortified fruit juices and soft drinks lining your grocery aisle. Most moms I talked with found getting kids to drink water a real challenge, so they brainstormed creative ways to make water palatable.
One made lemonade with freshly squeezed lemons and a little bit of stevia for sweetness. Another steeped their teenager's favorite fruit into filtered water and kept it at eye level in the fridge. With these strategies, getting kids and adolescents to drink more water suddenly didn't become a herculean task.
They Make Breakfast a Priority
"Breakfast is my favorite meal," said no kid ever. Yet studies show it really is the day's most important meal.
One among adolescents found "[s]moking, infrequent exercise, a low education level at 16, female sex, frequent alcohol use, behavioral disinhibition, and high body mass index (BMI) were significantly associated with adolescent breakfast skipping." Yikes.
Another study among preschool children found consistently eating breakfast contributes to a healthy body weight, whereas the BMI of breakfast skippers increased.
A protein shake makes a fast, filling, all morning-fueling alternative to sugary breakfast concoctions, which spike and crash blood sugar mid-morning. For my teenage boys, I load non-soy, plant-based protein powder with unsweetened coconut milk and let them have fun from there. Some mornings they might choose almond butter and cacao nibs; for others, frozen berries and coconut milk.
They Make Healthy Swaps
You can create lateral shifts, or healthy alternatives, for pretty much any food your kid loves. Let's say your teenage daughter wants mashed potatoes. Mash roasted cauliflower, stir in a little coconut oil or ghee and salt, and bam, you've got faux-tatoes.
Once you get the hang of lateral shifts, any food can become a fun challenge to upgrade. Spaghetti squash makes an easy swap for pasta, and kids actually prefer vanilla almond milk to cow's milk. "Bread" free-range chicken fingers in coconut flour and swap the fries for sweet-potato fries. Rather than deprive them, a little imagination can healthily upgrade just about any food your child loves.
They Eat Frequently Together
In one study, researchers looked at meal frequency and healthy habits among adolescents. Families who dined together five or more times a week -- breakfast, lunch or dinner -- created healthy eating habits for those adolescents five years later.
That follows an earlier study that found family meals during adolescence positively influence those adolescents during adulthood and a very recent study that concluded university students who learned healthy habits growing up maintained those habits better than those who didn't learn them.
Everyone's busy these days, but as these studies prove, creating meals together pays dividends down the road. "Breakfast is the only time my family is ever really together," one dad told me. He had table rules: No texting or other distractions; no bickering; you've got to try at least a bite of every food on your plate; and most importantly, have fun.
As a single, busy mom, I know what a challenge encouraging kids and adolescents to make healthier food choices can become. That's where I need your help. What strategies do you successfully employ with your children or teens?