How to keep your kids healthy when everyone else is sick?

I was used to being in charge of everything–the doctor’s appointments, the meals, the vitamins, the decisions about who’s too sick to go to school. And I was exhausted. That is until I discovered that my four kids (even the 7-year-old) could take some responsibility for their own health. In the same way, I taught them to tie their own shoes or do their own homework, I taught them to take basic steps to keep themselves healthy. (And it works! We’ve had a few colds and fewer missed school days ever since.) “The whole experience of childhood is about learning to be independent. We drop our kids off at school; we let them go down the slide by themselves. The same thing should be true of their health habits.

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Children need to gradually take responsibility for their health in the same way we expect them to be responsible at school or on the playground,” says pediatrician Gwen Wurm, M.D., of the University of Miami. According to a recent study published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, elementary school children taught healthy habits were still practicing those habits three years later. Researchers concluded that health education, started early, can be truly effective. Ready to start delegating?

PROMOTE HER TO CHIEF OF THE GERM POLICE

You can’t be there to shield her from every sneeze, but you can give her the skills she needs to protect herself.

1. Set up a state-of-the-art hand-washing station. How to make regular hand washing happen? Put a step stool in front of the sink; kids often have trouble reaching the water (results: plenty of soap, but very little washing). “Entice kids with those fun, colorful, scented liquid-soap dispensers,” says pediatrician Barb Frankowski, M.D., of the University of Vermont in Burlington. (They don’t have to be the antibacterial brands, which may be too harsh for sensitive skin).

To teach them to soap up long enough, tell them to sing the “Alphabet Song” or “Happy Birthday to You” twice. That translates into the medically approved 30 seconds of washing. If rinsing is a difficult concept for your child to grasp, try letting her dunk her hands into a sink full of water instead.

2. Teach her to “elbow” germs out of the way! “Instead of covering her mouth with her hand when she sneezes, teach your child to sneeze into the crook of her arm,” says Frankowski. No germs on her hands means fewer germs spread.

3. Practice better blowing techniques. This move does not come naturally to kids. In my house, I pretend my 7-year-old is an elephant when she blows her nose and say “You must have a very small trunk because I didn’t hear a thing!” This always prompts her to try again–with more gusto.

“Stock up on really soft tissues,” says Frankowski. Once a nose gets red and raw, no child will allow a tissue near it! To transform any tissue into a nose-friendly one, dab a little lotion on it first. Your child will put the lotion on as she blows–and right where she needs it.

DUB HIM YOUR GOURMET GURU

Want to have a child who grabs a banana instead of a Twinkle for a snack? The more your child knows about nutrition, the better food choices he’ll make. Here are some ways to help your child become capable of making the right decisions on his own (i.e., when your back is turned):

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1. Involve him in buying decisions at the grocery store. Show your child how to choose fresh vegetables and ripe fruit. Squeezing cantaloupes or smelling peaches is fun and makes for savvy little produce consumers. As you put items in your cart, point out their nutritional value (or lack thereof). Make him aware, for example, of how much sugar is in a sports drink, or how small an amount of real fruit is often found in fruit juice. An added benefit: You’ll be less likely to buy junk food while your assistant is studying your every move.

Of course, banishing junk altogether from your house might make your child want it more. So be prepared to make some concessions. In my house, I refuse to buy sweetened cereals because cereal is something we eat every day. But I will buy the occasional doughnut, which is gone in a few bites (until the next time). When the munchies call and only junk will do, I allow chips or cookies but not candy. I want to send the message that some junk is lower on the nutritional scale than others.

2. Take a family outing to an apple orchard or strawberry field. “When a child knows where food comes from, he’s less likely to be drawn to prepackaged, processed foods,” says Frankowski. My kids love to go apple picking. Wandering up and down the rows of trees, apples are not just “red” or “green,” they’re (more specifically) Macouns, Red Delicious, Cortlands, Macintoshes, Granny Smiths. It’s the same story when we go strawberry picking in the summer: The kids leave with more than just baskets of berries–they leave with a feeling of ownership. “Try my berries–they’re really good,” they say to their dad that night.

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3. Let your child help you prepare dinner, or have him make his own lunch for school. He’ll be more likely to eat the food if he’s had a hand in the preparation. Another plus: He’ll start to understand how meals are made. “Kids learn by doing,” says Frankowski.

4. Turn veggies and fruits into fast food. “Carrots and apples aren’t advertised on TV with dancing cartoon characters, the way fast-food items are. We need to turn healthy fruits and vegetables into fast food for our kids,” says Frankowski, who recommends filling plastic sandwich bags with precut veggies and fruits like red bell peppers, strawberries, or celery. This allows your child to grab a quick snack for himself without going to any more trouble than it takes to open a bag of potato chips.

5. Don’t give up! “Most of what we like is an acquired taste,” says Frankowski. So don’t give up if you get a thumbs-down on a dish. Kids need multiple opportunities to work up the gumption to try something new. There are a couple of not very kid-friendly dishes that my kids love only because I have been serving them since they were old enough to eat them: cauliflower soup, spinach-ricotta cheese pie, and stuffed artichokes.

6. As a last resort, bribe ’em. Dole Foods polled school kids, asking “If you were president, how would you get kids to eat five servings of fruits and vegetables a day?” The top answer: Pay them for eating more fruits and vegetables.

ENLIST HIM AS YOUR PERSONAL TRAINER

Getting kids into the habit of exercise at an early age may make the difference between being a couch potato and a fit adult later in life.

1. Turn the remote over to him… so he can push the “power off” button. It’s not just that too much TV watching is a bad habit in and of itself–it’s that it takes time away from running around and playing, say Wurm and Frankowski. Kids who don’t depend on TV for good times tend to become kids who grow to know the fun of sports.

2. Herd the kids outside–and head out yourself! It’s not enough to send them out to play–send yourself out too. “Kids enjoy it most when you go with them,” says Wurm, who adds that this can benefit parents as well as children. “Go to a field where you can throw a ball; take a day-long hike; have a family bike ride every Sunday.” And make it a habit to run errands the old-fashioned way–via walking or biking. The result? When they’re looking for something fun to do, they’ll be more likely to take a hike or jump on a bike than sit inside moaning about boredom.

3. Take advantage of a little friendly competition. Keep it between parent and kids (not kid to kid), and challenge the gang to a short race to a designated tree or lamppost. Chances are, you’ll get so wrapped up in the race that the exertion will feel like exhilaration.

MAKE HER YOUR SAFETY ENGINEER

How do you know your child will behave in safe and healthy ways while she’s playing out of your immediate line of vision? Try these mom-tested strategies:

1. Make your child the seat belt superintendent. Let her blow the whistle if anyone in the car is not wearing a seat belt. Race her to see who can be the first to buckle up. And make sure your child is in the appropriate seat and belt combo for her age and weight.

2. Let her choose and decorate her own bike helmet or soccer shin guards. If you want her to use safety equipment, let her pick it out. For a long time, my 10-year-old had a helmet he resisted wearing. True, it made him look like a bubble-headed George Jetson, but I figured this was about safety and not looks, so I kept insisting that he wear it. Finally, I took him to pick out his own, and he chose a metallic blue one with a more aerodynamic shape and cool visor. Suddenly the helmet was always on his head when he went riding.

3. Beat the battle of the sunscreen by letting your child slather some lotion on you first. “They do your back, then you do theirs,” says Wurm. Fair’s fair! Have fun with some of the new formulations–sunscreens now come as colorful lotions, foams, sprays, and sticks.

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