Secrets of Happy, Healthy Families

Bike rides, creative meals, laughing out loud--it's easy to have fun if you just know how. Try these mom-tested ideas.

  • Courtesy of Susannah Felts

    Making Healthy Fun

    At last! Warm weather has returned, and my family and I (pictured) are eager to get out and enjoy it as much as we can. One of our favorite ways: a predinner family run or bike ride with our 3-year-old (she hitches a ride in the jogging stroller or her seat on the back of my husband's bike), ending at the playground so the kiddo can get some exercise (and we can cool down on a park bench). I rarely feel more positive about my parenting job performance than during these outings. We're having fun, modeling healthy activity for our daughter, and showing her that fitness can be a built-in perk of together time.

    Habits like this one are the stuff that happy, healthy families are made of—from smart eating and exercise to discipline and downtime. And they're surprisingly simple to incorporate into your daily routines. Keep reading for more inspiring ways, time-tested by real moms, dads, and kids, to help you and your loved ones flourish—body, mind, and spirit.

  • Stephanie Rausser

    They Snuggle

    The power of touch goes a long way in building strong family bonds—anything from frequent hugs to Saturday morning cuddles. Mia Harris Cover, a mom of three in Nashville, loves what she calls the "bed pile": "Sometimes at night before bed, all the kiddos pile with us into Mom and Dad's bed. We wriggle and wrestle and talk and giggle. It is usually the only time that Harrison, my oldest, acts like a little kid; he's getting to the age where he's way too cool for us. It's just something that helps melt away the stress of the day."

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    They Say It with a Song

    Enjoying music of all kinds with the kids is a must for happy families: Not only can the right tunes boost moods, make car trips endurable, and broaden cultural horizons, they also help kids get through tasks and meet challenges, from cleaning their rooms to trying new foods.

    "We make up our own lyrics to our favorite songs, which is a huge way parents can use music with their kids," says Eileen Wolter, a mom of two boys in Summit, New Jersey, who blogs about motherhood and music at A Suburban State of Mom. By singing their requests and directions, set to familiar tunes, Wolter and her husband encourage their sons to finish breakfast, get dressed, and brush their teeth.

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    They Maintain Balance

    Though it's important to encourage and support kids' endeavors at school and in extracurricular activities, the smartest parents realize an overabundance of competition, or overemphasis on high performance, can be more damaging than nourishing. It's important to carve out time for "activities that have no goal other than for family members to enjoy one another," says Lisa Greenberg, a psychologist practicing in Madison, New Jersey. "Cooking or baking together, playing games, taking walks, collaborating on a surprise for a friend or family member, or doing something to help someone else are all good choices." Carving out this kind of together time builds strong connections between kids and parents, which in turn can help kids succeed in other arenas, too, Greenberg says: "When kids trust that their parents will value them no matter what, they're freer to take healthy risks. For example, if a child knows her parents will love her whatever her grades, she may take the risk of taking a higher-level course, even if there's a chance that she won't do as well."

  • Fancy Photography/Veer

    They Snack Smart

    Kid sees apple. Kid grabs apple. Kid eats apple. Getting kids to gravitate naturally toward healthful foods starts with having them easily accessible at all times—like a bowl of fresh fruit on the counter or a bag of dried fruit in the car. Kids are natural grazers, so on-the-go is often the best way to serve up nutritious options—and avoid dinner-table strife.

    Christine Garcia, a public relations specialist and mom of four girls in Elmhurst, Illinois, sets out healthy foods like carrot sticks, broccoli, cheese, and fruit in a muffin tin for her daughters to nibble on while she's making dinner. That way, "Once dinner is finished I know they have at least already eaten veggies and other good-for-them snacks," she says.

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    They Cook Together

    Get kids and parents in the kitchen together and you have the chance to pass along healthy eating habits; teach cooking, measurement, teamwork, and improvisational skills; and much more. "From the time they could stand on a chair, my children have helped me cook," says Nashville-based mom Cover. "We talk about why certain foods are better than others, and healthy choices vs. occasional treats."

    Kids who help with meal prep may become more adventurous eaters too—often they're more willing to try a mysterious work in progress than the final product on their plates. "Whenever possible, I encourage them to try whatever I am making (just a bite)," says Sarah Caron, a recipe developer and mother of two in Connecticut. "As a result, my 3-year-old and 5-year-old will eat just about anything. From anchovies to ramps, they have tried a wide range of foods and discovered likes that they wouldn't have otherwise."

  • Family Dinners: 4 Tips To Make Them Better
    Family Dinners: 4 Tips To Make Them Better
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    They Make Kids Important Contributors

    Andrea Frayser, a mother of three in Hagerstown, Maryland, gives her kids (ages 17, 14, and 12) a budget and lets them shop for and prep a meal each week. "My 14-year-old loves to bake, and every other Friday she makes wonderful veggie pizzas on a wheat crust," Frayser says. "One of my favorites was a pizza with olive oil, roasted garlic, sliced tomatoes, fresh basil, rosemary, spinach, roasted peppers, and feta." By helping the family run smoothly and contributing to its healthy-eating goals, kids gain a sense of authority and responsibility.

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    They Reward Good Behavior

    Disciplining kids is a tough job—and everyone has their own idea of how it should be done (Tiger Mom controversy, anyone?). But offering modest rewards for good behavior often seems to do the trick in keeping things harmonious at home. Jessie Abram Rosenblum, a mom of two in Nashville and creator of the Happy Family phone app, likes the fact that a reward system helps keep her in check too: "I am not a strict disciplinarian," she says, "and although I strive to be consistent, this can sometimes be a struggle.

    "Reward systems have improved my parenting by helping me to stay organized and consistent and allowing me to focus on the positive in my children," she says. "I reward with the intention of the extrinsic reward becoming less important over time. I am so happy when I see how quickly making the right choices becomes more about my children becoming accountable for their own healthy behavior and choices. I'm so amazed at the value that a later bedtime, a trip to the Humane Shelter, or a popcorn-and-movie night hold for my 6-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter."

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    They Take 10

    "We're pulled in so many directions that sometimes the most we can hope to get for ourselves is 10 minutes at a time—10 minutes to read, meditate, talk to a friend, do investment planning," notes Los Angeles-based Laura Brady Saade, mother of three and founder of Give Me 10. "But devoting just that tiny parcel of time each day to positive change—you name the goal—really can crank out results."

    Saade applies the concept to nurturing her kids: "I try to spend at least 10 minutes of focused, one-on-one time with each one," she says. "I know it sounds funny for a stay-at-home mom to have to plan 10 minutes with each child. But usually we're together for hours at a time, but not in special time." And when her kids are cowed by a big task or project, she encourages them to get started—and stick with it for just 10 minutes. "Usually they find that once they get started, it's not so bad."

  • They Stick to the Schedule

    Sometimes all it takes to keep things chill is a "good old-fashioned routine," says Deena "Rosie" Wachtel, a mom of two daughters in Los Angeles who blogs about family organization at Rosie Bear. "We wake up at the same time, eat breakfast, and get out the door. In the evenings, it's playtime, homework, bath, dinner, and bed. The girls know what to expect. They don't argue or fuss (too much). And everyone gets plenty of sleep and alone time—which is important for kids too!"

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    They Celebrate One Another

    Grand shows of gratitude and affection are the stuff of anniversaries and birthdays—but more frequent and lighthearted displays of warmth can be the glue that holds a family together. "Our favorite ritual is the 'happy dance,'" says Amy Robbins-Wilson, a music teacher and mom in Belfast, Maine. "Whenever someone comes home from work or school, the rest of us get up and do the dance. Just taking a few moments each day to really appreciate one another and let each other know we are happy to be a family is a wonderful, wonderful thing." And dancing is a particularly effective way to do it, she notes. "The dances change and get more creative all the time. They're an invaluable way to get rid of the crankies! It is hard not to feel better after happy dancing."

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    They Garden Together

    A garden is a project that the whole family can invest in together, sharing responsibilities and, ultimately, the delicious reward of vegetables, fruits, and flowers—while getting exercise, fresh air, and vitamin D. From deciding what to plant each year to harvesting crops, everyone can get involved, and each year's successes (and failures) can become the stuff of shared family memory with the help of a garden journal and photographs. "We like that our son can see where our food comes from," says Katrina Gray, a writer and mom to a son in Nashville. "He steals peppers right off the vine."

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    They Read Food Labels

    You probably do it—and once the kids are old enough, they can too. Knowing how to decipher food packaging information is an important step a child can take toward assuming responsibility for her own health and nutrition (and helping keep the rest of the family in check as well). New York City-based family therapist Emma Viglucci showed her 8-year-old daughter to read labels, and grocery trips have been teachable moments ever since. "When we go shopping, she's amazed at how little nutrition—and how much sugar—kids' cereals have," she says.

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    They Read (and Write) Together

    Studies show that children who are read to at home go on to score higher academically than kids who come from families where reading isn't a regular activity. But the good influence shouldn't stop when your kids are old enough to read alone. "We try to save the last hour before bed for some kind of reading," says Erin Wing, a former elementary school teacher and mom to three boys. "Sometimes we read aloud to the kids, sometimes we all read our own books to ourselves, sometimes we listen to an audiobook. We cuddle up on the couch or in bed and attempt to make it a happy time for all," she says.

    Wing, who blogs about developing kids' literacy at Small Types, doesn't stop there: "I have a goal to write with or to each of my kids at least once a day. I'm not perfect at this, but once I made the goal, I started keeping pencils and crayons near the kitchen table, and I found more little writing opportunities throughout the day. Just short bits of writing. Nothing fancy."

  • Fancy Photography/ Veer

    They Don't Stop at "I'm Sorry"

    Kerry Stutzman, a family and marriage counselor in Denver, makes sure her children go beyond apologizing to make amends: "I explain to them that when they do something that hurts or offends another person, it is like pounding a nail into a board. When we apologize, it's like pulling the nail out of the board. That is a good, important step, but there is still a hole in the board. We still need to fill the hole with putty to completely cover the damage that was done. With a sibling, that might involve helping with a chore, pushing a younger brother on a swing, or playing a little sister's favorite game. The idea is that when a relationship has been damaged, we need to repair the damage with something that helps kids feel closer to each other."

  • Bryan McCay

    They Bring Games to the Table

    We've all been there: the restaurant meal from hell. The hissy fits, juice cups overturned, meals left untouched, and glares from fellow diners. It's one of the many forms of parent hazing...and though you can't eliminate all dining disasters, you can lower the risk. Smartphone apps or other video games come in handy for keeping little ones content at the table, but family therapist Stutzman has an idea that avoids the problem of too much screen-time: "I often take small card games along, and my three boys sit happily while we wait for our food," she says. "It ends up being 'family game night' and eating out all in one. That is especially helpful on vacation when we are in many restaurants, day in and day out."

  • Mark Lund

    They Laugh a Lot

    Even the happiest, healthiest families experience hard times and tension. How to defuse it? "Make humor a staple in your home," says Tamar Chansky, Ph.D., a Philadelphia-based mother of two, child psychologist, and author of Freeing Your Child from Negative Thinking. Practical ways to do that? Keep a family-appropriate comedian CD in your car, or keep a joke/comedy book at the dinner table and introduce a "joke of the week" to share with the family. The idea is to have funny props at the ready if you need them. "We need to rig our lives for joy," Chansky says. "When you are able to laugh or see other people laughing, it's very helpful for relieving stress."

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    They Make Sure Everyone Feels Valued

    Happy children feel like they matter to the family unit, says Chansky. And there's no better way to encourage that than to give them opportunities to contribute their skills and unique abilities around the home. "Maybe you have a really organized middle-schooler who can help organize the CD collection or books, or a younger child with a creative eye who can create a cool dining-table centerpiece from found objects," Chanksy suggests. "Strengthening your kids' self-esteem is not just about praising them; it's about valuing the things that they do."

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    They Keep the Spark Alive

    Mom and Dad's relationship is the foundation of a happy family, says Tina Tessina, Ph.D., a psychotherapist and author of Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Fighting About the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage. "You are the role models for your kids' ideas of how women and men behave, and the interaction between you—including affection, problem-solving, working together, and household maintenance—is their model for a successful relationship." Setting the tone for a loving household begins with showing affection to one another, Tessina suggests. "Touch as often as possible, put your hand on his leg while driving, give him a little squeeze now and then, hug and kiss each other. Create a cuddling space in front of the television, on the porch swing, in your bedroom, and use it."