Tips to get the whole family back on track

Good habits when it comes to eating and exercising pay dividends

The beauty of good family habits is that they encourage everybody to do the right thing without negotiations and rows. They just become the way things are done in your household. That’s once they are ingrained, of course.

It takes 66 days, on average, from the time a new behaviour is introduced to it becoming automatic, according to a scientific study conducted at the University College of London. Some of the 96 participants took as few as 18 days to form a new habit but for others it was up to 254 days – debunking a popular myth that doing something for 21 days in a row was all that was required.

So it’s no wonder you are still struggling with your new year resolutions. Trying to make too many drastic changes is also setting yourself up for failure. The secret to long-term success is little changes – and, more importantly, starting as you want to go on when children are still very, very small. You don’t really know the meaning of the word “role model” until you become a parent and see your bad habits re-enacted in front of your eyes.

So, what are some good habits for healthier, happier family life? We enlisted a few experts – paediatric dietitian Ruth Charles, clinical psychotherapist Joanna Fortune of Solamh and forensic psychologist Maureen Griffin of MGMS Training – to help us draw up the following suggestions.


1 Eat together as a family around a table

Between work, commuting, sport and leisure commitments, it is hard to sit down together for dinner every night but, if you don’t aim to do it as often as possible, it will rarely happen. The proven benefits range from healthier eating to improved relationships. Ban all phones, too.

2 Use serving bowls

Allowing children to help themselves to food at the table means they are more likely to try things and regulate their eating according to their appetite.

3 Eat a rainbow

If you have got the daily five fruit and veg under your family’s belt of good eating habits, add a bit of nutritional finesse by making sure they span a range of colours. As Ruth Charles explains: “The colour usually determines the vitamins and antioxidants present, so include red, orange, yellow, green and blue/purple choices every day, eg some tomato, butternut squash, turnip, cabbage, blackcurrant.”

4 Avoid drinking your calories

The best family drinks for hydration, dental health and your pocket are plain water and milk, says Charles. While few are unaware now of health warnings about sugar-laden soft drinks, it is also better to eat, rather than juice, fruit. And for adults, alcohol’s “forgotten” calories can sabotage healthy eating.

5 Consume more “whole” foods

These are foods that look the same in your hand as they did when they were first made, is how Charles puts it, such as milk and eggs. Avoiding processed foods means you will eat more nutrients in their natural state and also cook from scratch.

6 Make a weekly meal plan

As boring as it may sound, this saves time, money and increases your changes of sticking to a well-balanced diet. Resorting to take-aways in last-minute desperation for food and inspiration is the sort of spontaneity most of us could do without.

7 Walk to school

Too far, no time, bad weather, not safe . . . The reasons children don’t walk to school trip off the tongue, but it’s worth reassessing the logistical challenges that apply to your family to see if, even just one day a week, they could perhaps walk at least some of the way?

8 Unplug for family activities

It might be once a day or just once a week but switch off the wifi and do something together as family during which nobody looks at their devices, advises Maureen Griffin. If it’s watching a TV programme together – no other screens allowed. Some parents swear by an app called Screen Time that allows them to set time limits on their children’s devices or restrict use of certain apps.

9 Keep screens out of the bedrooms

It is not just children who need screen-free nights, says Griffin. Scientific research suggests we would all get a better night’s sleep with televisions, laptops, tablets and mobile phones out of sight and out of earshot – an improved love life too, perhaps.

10 Let children choose a chore

Does getting them to do jobs around the house require a lot of nagging? Instead of allocating tasks in the effort to give them a sense of responsibility rather than entitlement, why not ask them to pick something? It has worked for our featured family here, the O’Connors of Cork, where the eldest boy volunteered to get his little brother dressed every morning. It’s not something his mother Caroline would have thought of asking him to do but it helps her and he enjoys it.

11 Adopt the 15-minute rule

Make sure you spend at least 15 minutes every day playing with your child, says Joanna Fortune. This should be a distraction-free, uninterrupted 15 minutes. Play is the language of children, helping them make sense of the world, and don’t worry if you don’t consider yourself “good” at playing – children are the expert, let them show you.

12 Debrief at the end of the day

Every day, ask each member of the family to share their “best bit of the day” along with “the bit they wish they could change”. This, says Fortune, “shows even the youngest family members that everyone has highs and lows. It allows parents to hear at least two bits of information about their child’s day and encourages solution-focused thinking and processing of difficult experiences daily without them building up.”

13 Keep weekends calm

Parents who work outside the home often try to overcompensate by packing the weekend with highly stimulating activities for their children. Fortune however urges parents to remember that sometimes, sitting next to you doing absolutely nothing means absolutely everything to your child. “Keep it simple, go for a walk together, make a snack together and then pull the duvets from the bed and curl up on sofa together watching a movie, make Play-Doh, read a book together, sing, dance, laugh and just be.”

14 Do something kind every week

It is really important to work on children’s declining empathy levels, which Fortune attributes to the impact of screens and social media, by encouraging them to think about others. You could gradually build up a care package and then let your child give it to someone who is sleeping on the streets; let them see you buy a cup of tea and a sandwich for someone homeless; befriend elderly people in the community; encourage your child to donate toys to good causes. “Building empathy is the greatest gift any of us can give our children in today’s society,” she adds.

1 i5 Settle for “good enough”

Relax – no family is perfect. Remember that as a parent you’re human, not a robot, says Charles. Getting i t right most of the time is the best we can aspire to.


Dietician Caroline O’Connor is better placed than most to make healthy eating a habit for her husband John and their four children. “I do my best – obviously – and I am very, very aware of it. It’s very important to me so I would put a lot of effort into making sure that we have a healthy diet.”

However, “theory is one thing and putting it into practice is another”, acknowledges O’Connor, who is on extended leave from her job but last August, started a consultancy called Solid Start Cork, aimed at supporting parents in achieving healthy family nutrition from weaning onwards.

At their home in Passage West, Co Cork, her children are like any others – they have their own preferences when it comes to food. Her oldest child, Declan (nine), used to be “a nightmare – he was so fussy” and now it’s the second one, Aidan (seven) who is fussiest, while the younger two, Finn (four) and Alice (one), are fine.

“But I make one dinner and if they don’t like it, well that’s tough. I don’t make them eat it but I don’t provide substitutions either. I encourage them to try it – I generally make sure there is something separate, such as potatoes, so if all else fails they can eat those. Some of them are not keen on meals where it’s all mixed up.” Occasionally she makes desserts such as apple crumble or stewed apple and custard or rice pudding – “something I am happy enough for them to eat” – otherwise it’s fruit or sometimes yogurt.

O’Connor finds the only way to organise family eating is to make a meal plan for the next five or six days. She writes a list and shops once a week. “I couldn’t cope with going to the shop every day – it’s boring and I don’t have the time.”

She lets each child choose one dinner and then at each meal tries to ensure there is at least one thing that they all will eat. Most week nights John, an accountant, is not home in time to eat with them, so it is just herself sitting down with the four children by 6pm. She would like dinner to be more relaxed and drawn out, so “we could have more of a chat – and that generally doesn’t happen”.

It’s the crazy time of the evening when everybody is tired, she points out, and it would help if there were two adults there. “The days when John is there it is definitely more relaxing – they have seen me all day and they want to chat to him.”

She uses what she terms “family-style service” – putting the food in bowls from which the children can help themselves. They love putting food on their own plates and it encourages them to try things.

For a while, Caroline used to dread meal times, she admits, but after reading The Danish Way of Parenting by Jessica Alexander and Iben Sandhal, she started dimming the lights and putting on music in the background. "It is working a lot better – more relaxing," she reports. "It used to be people trying to leave as quickly as possible, hardly sitting down, with one leg on the ground and one leg on the chair."

As regards exercise, she has no worries there about her children. “They get loads of physical activity”. They are lucky enough to live just seven minutes’ walk from the school the two older boys attend and the crèche is in their estate, so there is no need to get the car out for them in the morning.

Outside school hours, the children are frequently out playing in the estate with other children and they also take part in GAA in the club beside their house as well as doing taekwondo. They are allowed no more than an hour’s screen time a day – maybe two at the weekends.

O’Connor, who enjoys the outdoors and isn’t a fan of gyms, finds that walking is the easiest exercise to fit into her routine, usually with the buggy during the day or with friends some evenings. “It kills two birds with one stone” – Alice falls asleep after a few minutes, giving her mother a bit of peace and head space, or it’s an opportunity to catch up with friends.

John, a keen cyclist, is the one who finds it extremely hard to do enough exercise – he has a sedentary job and works long hours. “He doesn’t really have any time to exercise,” she says, although he is involved in under-age coaching at the GAA club. He has had trouble with his back and he is good at doing stretching exercises for that, but Caroline worries he doesn’t do enough for his heart and cardiovascular system. “I suppose it is just trying to make it a priority,” she says. “He could probably fit it in but it’s like there is always something else he could do, like mow the lawn.”

At weekends, they sometimes do an activity as a family, such as cycling on the nearby off-road track from Passage West to Blackrock – 20 kilometres there and back – or going for a walk in the woods. While there can be initial resistance among some of the children, who would prefer to hang out with friends, everybody enjoys it once they get there. "It's a way we can all get some exercise," she points out, but it is hard to make it a habit when weekends are so busy with birthday parties etc.

Going to bed earlier some nights is a “healthy habit” she would like to get into. She has the children in a good routine, with the younger two in bed by 7pm and the older ones by 8pm or 8.30pm, but Alice rarely sleeps through the night. However, O’Connor still finds it difficult to sacrifice those child-free hours in the evenings to catch up on her own sleep.

As a couple, they try to have the occasional “date night” but, being from Clare and Kerry respectively, they don’t have extended families around for babysitting. Now, while she is at home on leave, they occasionally meet for breakfast, just to see each other outside the house.

Sometimes, Caroline feels as if they are “ships in the night”. They are so busy making time for work, for the family and for school stuff, “the thing maybe we do last is make time as a couple”. That’s another habit to get into for 2017.