Though many of us have made a New Year’s resolution to adopt a healthier lifestyle for ourselves and our families, getting through the holidays can be a stumbling block. (Just think about all those tamales, cookies and candies that expand our waistlines and raise our blood sugar!)
In regard to getting your children’s health on the right track for 2019, Texas Tech Physicians of El Paso pediatrician Sarah Zate, M.D., answers a few questions and offers tips to help kids—and their parents—stay healthy while celebrating the holidays.
Q. Eating and drinking seems to be a big part of celebrating the holidays. How can we keep from overindulging?
A. The holiday season, in general, is not a free pass to eat whatever you want.
It has long-term health consequences—every pound you gain has an effect on your heart. We don’t want you to gain a lot of weight in a very short period of time, because it will take you far longer to lose it.
Eat to celebrate, eat for fellowship, eat for those traditional gatherings. But when you are not celebrating, you’re fueling your body, and that means high quality fuel—proteins, whole grains, and vegetables—the things your body needs to thrive. When you’re just hanging out over the holiday break at home, keep the cookies and cakes to a minimum, keep the fast food to a minimum, and really try to go about life the way we usually do.
Celebrations are the things that your heart and your soul need to thrive, but we need to remember which ones are which.
Q. What are some snacks you’d suggest as alternatives to sweets?
A. Fruit is always an excellent choice. It fills you up. It contains sugar, so you get that sweet tooth satisfaction, but without all of the butter, all of the fats, and all of the processed sugars. If that doesn’t satisfy, add some peanut butter. That will make a child feel more full, and then they’re not going to want the cookies quite so much.
Q. How important is it to keep kids on a “normal” sleep schedule during the holiday break?
A. If kids get too far off schedule it’s really difficult to bring them back. So, the more nights you let them off of their normal sleep schedule, the more battle you’re going to have in the first week of January trying to get them back to bed. Parents of toddlers know this. If you get them off schedule, bedtime goes crazy, they’re up in the middle of the night, they don’t sleep well, and then the next day they’re a terror. It’s just a lot easier on everybody to go to bed on time.
Q. What are some exercise tips you’d suggest for kids since they won’t be having P.E. during the holiday break?
A. It’s okay to go outside when it’s cold. I know that makes people nervous, but if it’s above freezing, send your kids out for half an hour to play. Dress them as necessary in warm gloves, a warm hat, and a warm coat. Take them to the park for half an hour to play. Parents can get on the swings, because that’ll keep you warm while they’re running around.
If the weather is really bad, there are physical-activity video games you can play at home. You can do things like play hopscotch in the house, using painters’ tape on the floor. If your kids don’t want to do those things, chores are always an option. Vacuuming will work up a sweat.
Q. Will a New Year’s resolution to eat better and exercise more—for kids and the family—be more likely to succeed if it is done over time and not started on an arbitrary date like Jan. 1?
A. For some families, it takes time to plan a major life change. So if you want to set a start date, be it the 1st of January or whenever, give yourself a couple weeks to figure out how you’re going to do that. But we can’t set resolutions that are short-term. These are life changes, so make resolutions things that are actionable and realistic. For example, you’re not going to just eat salad every day. You’ll go crazy!
Resolving to lose a certain amount of weight, to get a certain amount of exercise every day, to eat three servings of vegetables a day—those are small actionable items, but they make such a difference in your health. And I would encourage families to build around those because it’s a lot easier.
Q. Are there other health-related things that parents and families should be aware of during the holidays, other than food, exercise, and sleep? Mental health, perhaps?
A. Mental health is always a concern. I personally think that families tend to over-plan holiday activities. It’s okay to spend a holiday or the days leading up to it at home with just you and your spouse and your kids. It’s time to relax, it’s time to connect. It’s not time to run yourself ragged and drive yourself crazy.
Anyone who puts holiday obligations on you is probably more concerned about themselves than about you. It’s okay to say no. It’s okay to leave a party early to put your toddler to bed. Take care of yourself because in the end, who you have is you and your family. Take good care of them.
If you haven’t heard from somebody you love in a couple of days, call them right around the holidays. Reach out to them. Don’t expect them to reach out to you, because maybe they can’t. But just that phone call across the country to say, “I’m thinking of you right now” may make the difference for someone who’s struggling. Teach your children to do the same. Teach them to write thank-you notes. Teach them to call relatives they haven’t heard from in a while. Let them make those kinds of connections, because that’s how we teach them empathy and compassion.
Sarah Zate, M.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics at TTUHSC El Paso and a practicing pediatrician with Texas Tech Physicians of El Paso. Her clinical interests include care for children with complex medical conditions and their families.