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A Healthier Holiday for Kids

Chances are your December traditions look a little like this: Baking cookies that disappear before they're cool. Parking everyone in front of the TV to watch A Christmas Story on cable. Sneaking peeks at gifts underneath the tree. Meanwhile, healthy habits go straight into hibernation. This year, show your kids that the holidays can include good-for-you activities, too. "They'll become something your family looks forward to," says Edward M. Phillips, M.D., director of the Institute of Lifestyle Medicine in Boston and father of three teenagers. Try these tips.

Redo the Menu
"Kids develop an emotional attachment to the foods they have at this time of year," says Phillips, so the healthier you make them, the better. You could take cues from other countries: Some Mediterranean cultures believe it's good luck to eat antioxidant-packed pomegranate seeds on New Year's Day, while Italians welcome January with fiber-filled lentil soup. Or keep it close to home with sweet potatoes, which are rich in vitamin A, vitamin C and fiber. Instead of mashing them into a sugary casserole, bake them in the oven for an hour at 350 degrees and sprinkle cinnamon and nutmeg on top.

Welcome Workouts
Experts estimate that kids reduce their physical activity by about 50% when the holiday season hits. "They're off from school for a couple weeks and all that eating makes them want to lie around," says Debi Pillarella, M.Ed., youth fitness spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise. Keep them moving by seamlessly integrating exercise into your traditions. Each December, Pillarella makes an Advent calendar with a daily family fitness challenge under each flap (day 1, jump rope for a minute; day 10, do 10 push-ups). A few times a season, she and her kids wear pedometers on shopping trips and compete to see who can log the most steps.

Focus on Others
Seasonal stress doesn't just affect you—it trickles down to your kids. "Children are more prone to anxiety themselves when they have a stressed-out mom," says Phillips. Take a step back from the rush and sign your family up to serve food at soup kitchen, collect cans door-to-door for a food bank or read to the elderly at a nursing home. It will put your worries into perspective, bring you and your kids closer together and boost your longevity. Visit volunteermatch.org to search for opportunities in your town.

Let It Snow!
When the weather gets chilly, these family-friendly activities will warm you up—and torch calories too. Here's how to boost your burn.

  • Build a snowman: Instead of bending over to pick up snow, do a squat: With feet shoulder-width apart, plant heels, bend legs 90 degrees and stand back up. Minimum calories burned in 30 minutes*: 114
  • Have a snowball fight: Squeeze your core muscles and twist from your torso as you toss and dodge flying snow. Minimum calories burned in 30 minutes: 172
  • Go sledding: Sprint up the hill as fast as possible. Wait 1 minute, then sled back down and repeat. Minimum calories burned in 30 minutes: 201

*Based on a 125-pound person

Originally published in the December 2011 issue of Family Circle magazine.