Give Your Family a Health Makeover
4 Steps to a Healthier FamilyStart Simple
My first impulse was to launch a fitness version of "shock and awe": Chuck the TV and prepare nothing but vegan meals. Fortunately Philippa Gordon, MD, our pediatrician in Brooklyn, urged me to start small. "A series of minor upgrades is better than one big change, because it creates a pattern of healthier behavior," she pointed out. She advised me not to just tell my kids and husband to get moving but to join in myself, with activities like tag football and Frisbee.
We held another family meeting over dinner -- this time, spaghetti and turkey meatballs -- to discuss limiting video gaming and idle Facebook chatting to make room for more active pursuits. I asked my sons to think of an exercise we could do together. They resisted less than I'd anticipated, but instead of football or soccer they wanted to hit the gym with Peter after dinner. So we got them their own membership cards at the local Y and enrolled them in an introductory strength-training course. Very quickly my former couch potatoes were hefting iron in the weight room and logging time on the stairclimber. True, the machines faced a TV, so Mose could watch MythBusters as he sweated. But as the good doctor said, it's all about the little changes.Expand Their Horizons
There's nothing like an exercise class to get my butt moving. Zumba, Pilates, or kettlebells -- for me, all good. It turned out that my family was more selective. Mose took one look at the average age of my aerobics classmates and backed slowly out of the room. Shaken by his Close Encounter with Middle-Aged Women, he went with Peter to find himself a trainer at a nearby boxing gym. Before I could say "Mike Tyson," Mose was getting the workout of a lifetime with a speed bag. Not to be outdone, Mac found a Muay Thai martial arts instructor and began practicing combat kicks, jabbing his feet into walls, the refrigerator door, the light switches, and his brother.
Peter -- muscular, yes; flexible, no -- gamely attended a yoga class with me. (A room full of lithe ladies in spandex, I pointed out to him. What's not to like?) But Bikram yoga, in which practitioners perform rigorous asanas in 105-degree heat, was a disaster. "Why is it so hot in here?" he mouthed to me with a panicked look on his face 10 minutes into class. "I told you," I said. "It's Bikram yoga. The heat is the point." "Bikram? I thought you said 'big room' yoga!" he hissed. I looked around, and the source of the misunderstanding dawned on me. This class was given in the larger of the two yoga studios at our Y. Ninety miserable minutes later my long-suffering spouse, sweat-soaked and ornery, put his hands on my shoulders. "I will never. In. This. Lifetime. Do that again," he said with great deliberation. "So please don't ask me."
Finally I hit the group-activity jackpot: I splurged on a two-person inflatable kayak, similar to the ones we'd had a blast with in New Mexico, for us to take turns paddling in New York Harbor. The whole family loved it. It was an adventure, it took teamwork, and shh! it gave us an excellent workout.Food, Reconsidered
Despite some false starts, my scheme to get my family moving more was working better than I'd hoped. Now it was time to tackle our eating habits. For this I needed the help of another pro. Elisa Zied, RD, author of Feed Your Family Right!, advised me to change my good-food patter. "Talk in terms they can understand, like 'You'll have better skin if you eat more fruits and vegetables,'" she suggested. "Or 'You'll do better on the test if you eat breakfast.' And show them what to do by example."
Leading the charge, I replaced white-flour tortillas and white bread with whole wheat versions and started cooking big batches of steel-cut oatmeal for breakfast. The verdict? Yum. A big green salad, however, got a big F. Peter and I chowed down, but the kids wouldn't bite. Later I got them to munch on crunchy red bell pepper and jicama sticks, much to my surprise.
They also went with the flow when it came to cutting excess liquid calories. Taking a cue from Dad, my sons swapped soda for tap water and unsweetened iced tea, while I replaced the many fruit juices and sports drinks in the fridge with seltzer -- all to little complaint.
But then I tried to feed them 100 percent whole wheat pasta, and the experiment threatened to crash. "This tastes like something farm animals eat," Mac complained.
"It's good for you," I responded lamely as Mose pushed the logs of brown penne around his plate. "I mean...it will give you lots of energy!"
At the end of the meal, Peter mildly observed, "Well, the upside of making whole wheat pasta is, we definitely eat less of it." A batch of half white and half whole wheat was better, but the real breakthrough came when I dug out a hand-cranked pasta maker, a wedding gift from all those years ago. Mose, our foodie in training, figured out how to make a mean egg noodle, which is higher in protein than a plain white one. It's a full-day procedure: He mixes the batter, feeds the dough into the machine to cut the strands, then dries them by looping them around the backs of the kitchen chairs. Now once in a while, along with a chicken paillard and a plate of raw vegetables, we have a side treat of homemade egg noodles topped with olive oil, grated Parmesan, and a twist of fresh black pepper. And we relish every bite.Stick with It
Four weeks is not a lifetime (unless you are eating whole wheat pasta), but by the end I could sense improvement. My team is now eating (slightly) better, drinking fewer empty calories and, thanks to the kayak, the gym, and their self-selected disciplines, exercising much more. True, I haven't dropped a dress size or started running six-minute miles. My boys, all three of them, look and act about the same. But visible change was never the point. When it came to making over my family's health, I realized that a change in attitude was what mattered most.
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