Reclaim Mealtime

Family preparing a meal

The busy life of a parent is a shock to a lot of us. It was to me. But, this was the life I signed up for. It’s up to me to figure out where busy-ness pushes too hard, where stress reaches in to squeeze me and ruin my health, and where I just need to gently but firmly push back and reclaim the parent I intend to be.

If you are ready to reclaim your natural parenting, start one place where you can model for your children, and, really, for yourself, that ideal you want. Start with time that matters for health, for calm, and for culture. Start by reclaiming mealtime from preparation through clean up. Make the whole meal family time.

Someone whose embrace of healthy, whole foods is really inspirational to me is Tamara, our own Nature Mom. She didn’t do it because she’s has some extraordinary will power that the rest of us lack. She experienced a problem as a parent (allergies), and she kept working on the fix. She developed habits of even healthier eating as the solution to allergies, and it didn’t happen all at once.


Question: How did you come to reclaim mealtimes and whole foods for your family?

We didn’t really have a choice but to get to this point with our eating, but it was a long process. My two girls (ages 3.5 and almost 7) and I have very long lists of allergies that had been causing health problems for years. It took 3 years to get to where I don’t have to constantly think about food because it’s our lifestyle now, not just a burden or challenge. It hasn’t been easy, but you do what you have to do for your kids. We were never big junk food eaters (I grew up with no pop, no fast food, no junk food) but learning to cook without processed foods (no cans, jars or boxed food) was the tough for me.


3 Steps to Reclaim Mealtime

  • Take it slow. Understand that food is more than fuel. Create a family habit of slow cooking and slow eating. If you want support from a community of people who also recognize the importance of the meal, look for convivia (chapters) in your area through Slow Food Canada or Slow Food USA.
  • Sit down together, face to face, when you eat. Reclaim that time with your children—and with yourself! Clear off the table so you won’t be tempted to eat elsewhere.
  • Embrace wholefoods. If it’s overwhelming to think of making all meals from scratch right now, just start by replacing one processed food a week as you shop. You can work on banning all boxed, canned, and other processed foods as you go.

This morning, as my husband was writing a shopping list and asking about food for the coming week, I saw him write canned tomatoes on the list.

“We talked about this. No canned tomatoes.”
“But, they don’t have whole tomatoes in glass jars.”
“I’ll tell you where they do have them.”
“Where?”
“In the vegetable aisle. Just buy tomatoes. It’s not that hard to blanch a tomato.”

I thought we were already past that decision. We’ve had the conversation before, and we might have it again. It is not easy to get to the point where everyone in your family is moving in the same direction. Cooking from scratch is a project in process in my house. Don’t stress it. Just move forward gently but firmly.

Just reclaim one meal at a time, and slow down.

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What the Mind-Body Connection Means for Your Health

Mother teaching baby yoga

When looking at the whole picture of your health, what you think and how you feel does matter. You already know that nutrition, physical activity, and sleep are important factors. Also consider that stress can suppress immune function.


Mind-Body Science

What scientists call the biopsychosocial model (BPS) of health is the scientific way to refer to what is popularly known as the mind-body connection. That the physical, psychological, and social factors all contribute to health is clear. Some think this idea doesn’t go far enough, that interconnections of mind and body can’t sensibly be separated. Others quibble about whether it fits the definition of a scientific model. In the meantime, studies accumulate to give us evidence of how the connection works.

Stress is inevitable. Everyone will face stress. Our bodies respond through hormones. Ideally, we process the stress and return to our state of normal. When the stress is chronic, however, our bodies suffer and can’t repair as easily or quickly. Stress can lead to and other digestive issues, headaches, high blood pressure, and even stroke. Stress can prolong healing, delay immune response, and impair learning. Simply, stress aggravates disease. Chronic stress has multiple negative effects on your health.

Particularly interesting is scientific investigation of how stress effects the immune system. We produce cortisol in response to stress, which is good for the short term fight-or-flight response. When the stress continues and the cortisol continues, it interferes with a cell’s production of the protein telomerase, which slows down the cell’s ticking clock. You cells wear down more quickly under stress.


The Key to Health Is in Your Response

The life of a parent is stressful. So, what do you do to keep stress under control and keep yourself and your family members healthy?

Build resilience. Resilience isn’t necessarily inborn. You can learn to be resilient. You can learn to meet stress and work through it. You can develop habits of stress release. Your habits might be as simple as relaxation and massage. You could schedule a class for yoga or tai chi and not let other obligations interfere with that schedule. After a traumatic event, sometimes we need clinical help to build that resilience. Therapy or support groups can help us. Art, dance, and music therapy can also help. Try a range of activities and adopt whatever mind-body exercises help you manage the stress in your life.

I’ve been doing yoga since the beginning of the year, and I do notice the effect. My favorite part of the yoga sessions is the relaxation with focus on the breath. For me, conscious breathing and stretching helps me to lower my stress levels and increase my alertness.

Remember, too, that children feel stress, and the reasons might not be obvious to you. Talk to your children about how they feel to help them learn to articulate what is going on with them. Help them develop tools to deal with their inevitable stress. Yoga, for example, can reduce the stress children face and increase their focus. My children also like guided imagery relaxation. They have learned to use this imagery for themselves if they can’t sleep or if they just need some time alone. The tools might seem very simple, but that is probably all most children will need.

Whatever method you use to meet and get through stress is not so important as recognizing and acting when you need to use your tools to return mind and body to your norm. Nutrition, sleep, activity, and calm all contribute to your family’s health. Health has a web of factors, including the mind-body connection.

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Sleep for Health

Family in bed

If you knew that there was one thing you could do for your health that would improve your memory, suppress your appetite, keep you alert, leave you happier, reduce your likelihood of hypertension and stress, and improve your immune function, wouldn’t you do it? Of course you would. So, get a full night’s sleep. Your body and mind need that time for renewal. The strong connection between sleep and health has become more clear as more studies look at specific links between sleep duration and disease.

It’s hard. Parents have a difficult time getting enough sleep, especially parents of very young babies. Hard though it may be, you need to take care of yourself and teach your children to take care of themselves. Chronic sleep loss has a clear, negative effect on your short-term function and medium-term health as well as on your longevity. The consequences are too great not to give yourself this one


Sleep Helps

  • Learning and memory – We retain information (memories and learned tasks) better when we experience memory consolidation as we dream.
  • Metabolism and weight – Sleep loss changes the way our bodies process carbohydrates and alters appetite through hormone levels. Lack of sleep leaves you hungry.
  • Safety – Tired people make mistakes. The results can be as bad as or worse than intoxication.
  • Mood - Lack of sleep leaves us stressed and irritable. Lower serotonin levels can also leave us at risk for depression.
  • Heart Health – In the extreme, sleep issues can lead to hypertension and irregular heartbeat.
  • Disease – Lack of sleep can weaken your immune system. Increased stress leads to inflammation, which leaves you at greater risk for disease and causes deterioration. Sleep is time for your cells to repair damage of the day.

“Lack of sleep disrupts every physiologic function in the body,” said Eve Van Cauter of the University of Chicago. “We have nothing in our biology that allows us to adapt to this behavior.” “Scientists Finding Out What Losing Sleep Does to a Body,” Washington Post, October 9, 2005.


How Much Sleep Do You Need?

Fifty-eight percent of Canadians say they are often tired, but 18% of Canadians sleep less than 5 hours a day, which is leaving them chronically tired. Twenty-five percent of adults in the U.S. don’t sleep enough half of the time. Sure, a few people are getting enough sleep, but many of us are not—and the problem doesn’t stop with adults.

A new study on naps for toddlers shows that young children who don’t get enough sleep are not only more easily frustrated, which you undoubtedly already knew, but their lack of sleep “may shape their developing emotional brains and put them at risk for lifelong, mood-related problems.” If that doesn’t scare you, consider what happens as your children grow older. Drowsy young drivers are involved in tens of thousands of traffic accidents every year.

Help your whole family get enough sleep.

Newborn babies need 16 or more hours a day.
Preschoolers need about 12 hours a day.
Teens need about 9 hours a day.
Adults need 8 hours a day.
Pregnant women may need several more hours than usual.


How to Stay Asleep

For the good of yourself and your family, create a sleep-friendly household.

  • Follow a bedtime ritual.
  • Don’t drink so much before bed that you have to use the toilet during the night.
  • Stay active during the day.
  • Dump the stress.

It isn’t just nice to get enough sleep. Your life expectancy depends on it. Go to bed!


Resources

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Get Active to Stay Healthy

Child learning to ice skate

Staying active is essential to your health for growth and development, disease prevention, strength, energy, and decreasing stress.

Whether we’re talking about healthy eating, staying active, getting sleep, or just doing things that make you happy, you are starting lifetime habits for your children. Set a great example, and your children won’t realize that there is any other way possible. And, of course, there shouldn’t be any other way. So, start now!

An adult needs to get at 2.5 hours a week of moderate aerobic activity or 1.25 hours of vigorous activity in increments of at least 10 minutes each. Plus, we should all do muscle-strengthening exercises at least twice a week. That’s 30 minutes a day. We would do even better to double that to 60 minutes per day or 5 hours per week.

Sixty minutes of moderate activity is roughly the health equivalent of 30 minutes of vigorous activity. Mix and match to reach the optimum level of activity.

Moderate means you break a sweat but you probably can’t sing your favorite song while you walk, dance, golf, play Frisbee, garden, do housework, ride a stationary bike, do yoga, take the stairs, actively play with your children, or go ice skating.

Vigorous activity means you are breathing hard and you can’t talk without pausing. This includes running, swimming laps, jumping rope, playing tennis, cross-country skiing, shoveling heavy snow, or taking an aerobics class.

Muscle-building doesn’t just mean lifting weights or going to the gym. You can do a lot of muscle building with resistance bands and homemade weights, such as handled jugs filled with rice or beans. I spent a lot of time lifting encyclopedias before I finally invested in weights.

Is your family already active? If so, you are in the minority, since only 10% of Canadian children already reach the suggested level of physical activity. Canada’s Physical Activity Guidelines suggest that children need at least 90 minutes per day of activity.

But, don’t just watch them. Join in.

My working out is a source of entertainment for my older children, who are very active on their own at home and in organized classes, but when they were younger I found it easy to create a spontaneous dance party or frenzied 15-minute housecleaning sing-along. Just get them in the habit of moving, and you will be helping them create those healthy habits.


Resources

  • Where Do I Start? from the American Heart Association. It’s simple. You invest no more than the cost of a decent pair of shoes, and you reduce your health risk. “Walking is the single most effective form of exercise to achieve hearth health.”
  • Start Walking Now. Tools for making a plan and tracking your activity, but don’t spend too much time planning. Get up! Just grab your kids and go walk for 30 minutes.
  • Physical Activity from the Public Health Agency of Canada
  • Tips for Children (5-11 years old) from the Public Health Agency of Canada
  • Tips for Youth (12-17 years old) from the Public Health Agency of Canada

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How to Help Your Family Stay Healthy

Active family playing in the snow

Keeping your children and your whole family healthy most often falls to you. Of course, we have the best of intentions as parents, but time gets tight and actions slip. Don’t let it happen. Always cover the basics. Your child’s developing body and mind depend on the accumulation of your family’s actions, and your child’s future depends on healthy habits you set in motion.

The basics of helping your family stay healthy are so simple that every one of us can start today. Cover these then you are ready to move on to the details.


Eat Right

The basic rules couldn’t be simpler. As Michael Pollan put it in his Eater’s Manifesto, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Food is fuel, but it is also important to culture and community. Respect the importance of eating well as the core of a healthy living.


Stay Active

Do more than just exercise. Choose the active options. Chase the kids, run the dogs, and take the stairs. It doesn’t take a lot of time or a lot of activity to keep yourself and your family in decent shape, but it makes all of the difference in your long-term ability to move well.


Sleep Well

Getting the right amount of sleep is as important to your health as eating well and staying active. Not enough sleep and your body won’t function as well. Your immune system, your weight, your blood pressure, and your basic ability to think straight depend on getting enough sleep. Too much sleep can lead to back pain, diabetes, heart disease, and depression. To make it more difficult, not everyone needs the same amount of sleep. Finding your way down that sweet center is yours to figure out.


Limit Toxic Exposure

Toxic exposures to avoid include those in your house, like lead and pesticides, as well as those larger environmental exposures due to air quality and water quality. Give your child’s developing brain and body the best possible chance.


Have Fun

In part, having fun is a way of managing the inevitable stress you face, but it’s so much more than that. By taking the time and creating the space to have fun together as a family, you strengthen those ties that hold you all together. That creates your larger safety net. Don’t let it slip. Schedule time together and try a variety of activities.

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