Meri RaffettoAs a mother of 5-year old triplets, I’m starting to see exactly how children learn healthy habits. It doesn’t always come from talking at them or trying to explain by reading child-friendly stories or using carrot-shaped puppets to get the message out about developing healthy habits. They learn from observing our behavior.

Our generation seems a bit different than our parents’ in that we make life busier than it needs to be, pushing out time for exercise, relaxation and eating properly. A recent study published July 21 in the American Journal of Men’s Health tracked 10,000 men from adolescence to adulthood and found that men are gaining weight after becoming first time fathers while non fathers are losing weight in the same time frame.

Whether the weight gain is coming from a decrease in time to exercise, eating off your kids’ plate or living a stress filled existence, the thing is … your kids are watching your actions and it’s making an impact on their own choices. As the old saying goes, “actions speak louder than words.”  Instead of just focusing on telling children how to eat or stay active I believe it’s time to look inward and see if we’re setting our kids up for success. What do they witness on a daily basis from our own actions? What did we learn from our parent’s actions?

The above questions made me reflect on my own childhood and the lessons I learned from simply observing my dad and I’m happy to report they were some good ones.

He never used the term exercise; he just enjoyed certain activities. My dad was always active. He was an avid outdoorsman who loved any type of fishing whether it was lake, river, ocean fishing or even ice fishing… he did it all. He also was known to golf and play handball. Some of these activities are slow moving but the point is I always witnessed him enjoying being active. What I took from this was that movement can simply be enjoyable and not a chore we have to do to stay healthy.

He didn’t label foods healthy; he just enjoyed and ate them. We didn’t hear the message that we needed to eat vegetables or the opposite, that vegetables aren’t tasty. We watched my dad eat vegetables and thoroughly enjoy them. Every single night of my childhood whether we had spaghetti, hamburgers or pizza we always had a salad with oil and vinegar dressing. Most often that salad was accompanied by an additional vegetable serving. My dad simply enjoyed his vegetables and needless to say it rubbed off on us kids. All four of his children enjoy vegetables and it seems very normal to us to have several servings with our dinner.

He didn’t speak of stress management; he simply took a morning walk and observed nature.  We lived near a large wooded lot growing up and my dad typically got up early and stood in front of the sliding glass door with his cup of coffee and observed the various wildlife that congregated in the back yard. He was very peaceful and still. It seemed almost meditative and you felt the need to quietly tip toe past him so you didn’t disturb this peaceful interlude.

Nearly every day he took his dog for a morning walk in the wooded lot. When I’d join him we didn’t do a lot of chit chatting. Just walking and taking in the cool crisp morning and the smell of the pine needles crunching beneath our feet. There is a great gift of stress management I received in learning how to be still and quiet, especially in the non-stop loud world we live in today.

Dads, you have a great opportunity to teach your kids by your actions. It doesn’t have to be monumental. It’s the simple things they’ll learn like eating veggies each day, taking a walk, or enjoying a fun physically active game.  Your actions are what they’ll remember the most and adopt into their own lives.

Meri Reffetto is a Registered Dietitian and founder of Real Living Nutrition Services, an online weight loss and wellness program inspired by the Mediterranean Diet. She’s the author of the Mediterranean Diet Cookbook for Dummies, the Glycemic Index Cookbook for Dummies and Glycemic Index Diet for Dummies. Meri is also a member of Men’s Health Network Board of Advisors.