Ever since Stephen Covey published his bestselling book “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” in 1989, the subject of habits has been in vogue. There’s no shortage of information if you’re looking to find useful habits to adopt for yourself. That said, many of the habits out there relate to business or personal success. But if your goal is a healthy family, you might want to take a page out of the expert “habit” books and apply them to your family life.
In 1997, my quest for family health and habits were put into motion when I founded LifeWorks Wellness Center with my wife, Sue Minkoff. From its inception, we always sought out to create a healing center where people would not only get the best possible medical care but in an environment that made you feel like family, while also being passionate advocates for families looking to strengthen all facets of their household.
As such, we have amassed 11 simple but powerful habits of a healthy family over the past 2 decades:
1. Eat Together
When families sit down for a meal together, rather than eating in “shifts” or grabbing food on the go, they tend to eat healthier things. Vegetables, fruits, and whole foods are more often consumed, rather than processed and fatty foods.
In addition to the physical benefits that come with healthier meals, research shows that family time helps children get better grades and avoid smoking, alcohol, and drugs.
If your family doesn’t share many meals together now, it might not happen overnight. Perhaps start with a goal of two meals per week. Stick to that, build the frequency over time, and establish it as a habit.
2. Cook Together
Similarly, cooking meals together is beneficial for a healthy family. Not only is homemade food generally healthier, but family members who cook together are spending time together and creating memories. The kitchen is often the hub of a home, so it’s a good place to come together.
Making meals together also allows family recipes to be passed down. Children who learn to cook are developing a valuable life skill, and the work involved is shared – Mom or Dad doesn’t need to feel as though meal prep is their burden alone.
3. Plan Vacations Together
How often do you go on a vacation with your family and encounter complaining children? Something’s too boring, or you’re too busy. Involving the whole family in vacation planning might help.
Giving children a voice in family plans allows them to communicate and stand up for the things that they want to do, as well as to consider others’ input and even learn to compromise. If you’ve gotten into the habit of the parents being authoritarian in planning activities, you can certainly try to get into the habit of getting everybody involved.
4. Respect Alone Time
As great as it is to do things together as a family, it’s also inevitable that all members of a family will want some alone time — and that’s a healthy thing.
Spending time alone allows a person to reflect, unwind, problem-solve and more. Especially in this age of connectedness, when everyone seemingly has a mobile device tethered to them, it’s important to allow each other to disconnect when they feel the need. Healthy families make a habit of respecting each other’s alone time.
5. Learn to Listen
Parents are no strangers to talking to their kids. But productive conversation is a two-way street, which means talking with your kids is important — and talking with someone involves more than simply talking.
True conversation involves listening, and healthy families make it a habit to listen to each other rather than just take turns speaking. What you tell your family members is no more important than what they have to say to you. Family members that make a habit of two-way discussions are more understanding of one another, and therefore closer.
6. Make Health a Routine
If you want to build healthy habits, health must become a routine that all family members follow. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control highlights consistency, predictability and follow-through when it comes to structuring family routines for health.
That might mean everyone in the house brushes their teeth at the same time after dinner. It might mean that no one eats sugary snacks after a certain time of day. It means scheduling regular checkups, cutting off screen time after a certain hour, and making sure everyone gets enough sleep every single night. For an advanced take, consider alternative health options such as acupuncture for the family.
Make these things a daily routine, and you’ll develop healthy family habits.
7. Get Physical
The physical fitness mantra, especially when it comes to the current childhood obesity epidemic, is to “eat less, move more.” Healthier eating habits can be derived from adhering to some of the habit-building already mentioned, but if you want your family to move more, you have to make an effort.
Go on family walks or bike rides. Plan for weekend activities that involve play. When you have a family gathering for a birthday, organize a relay race before cutting the cake. It hasn’t stopped me, that’s for sure — by the time I was 70, I had already competed in 42 Ironman races.
The takeaway is that you can plan activity into your life, and healthy families make a habit of moving. It works in reverse, too — people who engage in regular exercise tend to be more effective in their family roles.
8. Get in Some Downtime
Families are busy. There’s homework, kids’ sports schedules, social events to attend. The weekends, especially, can feel like the time when you’re always jetting from one place to another.
If you feel you need a break from all the activity, your family probably does, too. It’s great to honor social obligations and keep the kids busy, but sometimes you just have to chill out. If your weekends are constantly booked, try to make it a habit to set aside just one weekend a month to have no plans.
Give yourself a rest. Give your spouse a rest. Give your kids a rest. Spend a Saturday morning watching cartoons in your pajamas with your children. Take a weekend with no plans, and just see where it takes you.
If planning active days for your family helps cover your physical health, sometimes taking lazy days to relax and do nothing can help your entire family’s mental health.
9. Learn Together
How many parents, when their child comes home from school, ask: “What did you learn today?” It’s fairly common.
But what would you do if your child flipped the script and asked you: “What did YOU learn today?” Could you give them an answer?
There is value in being a lifetime learner. People don’t like know-it-alls for a reason. If you, as a parent, can shoulder the same responsibility for learning something new every day, which is the expectation placed on kids, aren’t you and your child both growing?
There are plenty of studies that show that being a lifelong learner is a key to success. And every parent wants their children to learn new things. So why not combine things? Research supports this strategy as a way of adding significant value to the whole family’s home life.
Watch educational shows or documentaries as a family. Start a family book club or even decide to write a book that aligns with your passion. Your children are not your peers in very many ways, but learning new things together is a way to level the playing field a little, encouraging inquisitiveness in your child while letting them know you’re open-minded, too.
10. Watch the News as a Family
The news can be a scary thing for children. If you’re a parent, you’ve probably had at least a few moments where you think to yourself, “I hope he/she doesn’t hear this.”
But guess what? They probably do hear it. And because to kids, some of the things in the news are confusing at best and frightening at worst, it’s important to digest news as a family.
It’s your chance as a parent to reassure your children. It’s their chance as children to express to you the extent of their grasp of things, as well as any misgivings they have. Your instinct as a parent might be to shield your children from things like school shootings, war, and the like, but they’re going to hear about them. Digesting the constant stream of information together, and using the time to digest and discuss, is healthy.
11. Be Open and Honest
Relationship counselors will tell you that being open and honest with your partner is imperative to having a positive relationship. It’s the same with families, which are often an extension of an existing relationship.
That’s why it’s critical to be honest with every member of a family. It’s especially important to not hide anything. If you’re a spouse and a parent, you want your partner and your children to be open and honest with you, so should you get into the habit of being open and honest with them.
One of the foundations of a healthy family is trust, and trust can only be established with honesty and openness. Don’t hide from the truth. Don’t think you’re protecting your family by being less-than-open. Honest and open discourse is how societies advance, and making a habit of being consciously honest and open with family members is a fundamental part of establishing a healthy dynamic.
Family life can be tricky. Not all families can be described as “healthy.” But if you aspire to that category, these are some guidelines you can follow to develop habits that build healthy families.
While different families may benefit from unique strategies of their own, one thing is universally true:
Commitment to a healthier family is an investment that never stops generating returns.