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My Father's Day Wish: Passing on Healthy Eating Habits

My Father's Day Wish: Passing on Healthy Eating Habits

Even though my father's been gone for 12 years, I feel his influence every day. When my wife and I talk about finances, when we discuss complicated issues with our children, when a friend asks for advice, I often hear his words spill from my mouth.

Like a lot of sons, I idolized my father and, in his absence, I've come to appreciate what he taught me -- from how to fill out a 1040 Schedule A to how to perform a J stroke in a canoe. But not everything I picked up from him has been good for me. For example, I can tie some of my poorer eating habits to him. He was an enormous man and ate enormous amounts of food. I often picture him with a mass of Nilla Wafers in one hand and a bowl of ice cream in the other.

Although I eat healthier than he did, I still have a tendency to eat like he did. I overeat; I enjoy too many foods that aren't good for me; and I hear the siren song of a Hardee's steak biscuit. But as a father of two young children, these are habits I'm trying not to pass on. This is why I do three things every week with my kids:

1: We eat together.
Now that they've stopped spilling milk everywhere, my children, ages 8 and 5, have graduated to the big table, where we eat together. Research shows that families who eat together tend to eat healthier. There are other benefits, too. In our house, we use mealtime to talk about the food at the table and to try new recipes. It doesn't always work, but it gives my kids an opportunity to see what I'm eating, even if it's something they've turned up their noses to.

2: We gather food together.
Each weekend I take the kids to the grocery store with me. This is not easy. Trying to get through a lengthy grocery list with two small children in tow is a challenge. But it gives me an opportunity to show them where the real food is in a grocery store (hint: It's on the perimeter of the store), to speak candidly about why we don't buy food packages with cartoons on them or toys in them and to let them help me meal plan. I answer a heck of a lot of questions in the fruit and veggie aisle and encourage them to pick out the whole foods they want. We also go to farmer's markets and steer towards seasonal produce. When we go, they get money to spend towards fresh foods they like.

3. We cook together.
Want to teach your children about food? Cook with them. It's a healthy eating tip experts like Dr. Oz recommend. And it's something we do in our house regularly, even though we have a small kitchen that gets crowded quickly. Having my kids help prepare meals gives me an opportunity to talk about the foods we eat and the healthy cooking processes we use. My daughter is a more adventuresome eater than she used to be and goes to a health-focused cooking camp every year. I'm teaching my son what I know as well -- I just keep his 5-year-old fingers away from the knives.

This effort to steer my children toward healthier habits is important. Diabetes and heart disease run in our family. Giving the kids healthy eating habits now may help them avoid those conditions -- and will make it easier for them to manage them if they can't.

Sometimes I think my kids aren't paying attention, but as Kelly Traver, MD, author of The Program: The Brain-Smart Approach to the Healthiest You, puts it: "Never underestimate the role you can have in influencing those around you, particularly children. If you have kids, realize that the lifestyle they see you living is, for the most part, the kind of lifestyle they will adopt."

I don't remember having a conversation about food with my father beyond who was getting the last slice of pizza or the rest of the ice cream. But when my kids are adults, I hope they'll remember the words Dad told them about healthy eating -- and live by it. That's a Father's Day gift that I'd really like to get.

Medically reviewed in July 2018.

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