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The Good Life: Back to School, Back to Routines

Oklahoma Heart Institute cardiologist Dr. Mathew Good and his wife, Bethany, share their tips and strategies for striving to live a healthy life with a busy growing family. Today, Bethany joins us on the blog to share how they plan for kids going back to school and schedules once again, getting busy.

As much as we love the lazy days of summer - splashing in the pool, roasting s’mores and family road trips - I find myself craving the routine and consistency of a school day now that Labor Day Weekend has officially wrapped. Whatever your kids’ ages, from little ones going to preschool a few days a week or big kids heading off to college, this time of year can prove incredibly overwhelming with all of the back to school demands. However, we have found that with just a few simple changes, we can once again find balance and keep our healthy lifestyle on track.

1) Wake up early. Life in the Good house starts early. We have three rambunctious kids who are (literally) hopping out of bed by 6:00 a.m. each morning. We’ve found that if we can wake up before they do to have a cup of coffee, read the news, workout, unload the dishwasher, or start a load of laundry, the morning is much smoother for all of us.  Even if you don’t have kids, waking up early has been shown to have several benefits, researchers say. Studies have found that morning people are less likely to be stressed out and exhibit character traits like optimism, being agreeable, satisfaction and conscientiousness. It is why we try to get a head start on the day. A healthy breakfast gives us the energy we need to keep up with the day’s demands.

Right along with waking up early is going to bed early. This is especially important for our kids.  We believe that finding a bed time routine and sticking to it each night is key. We try to avoid extra activities that will keep our family out late and create extra stress. Getting adjusted to the school schedule takes its toll on little bodies and the number one way to stay energized and healthy is to make sure the whole family gets quality rest each night! If your family got out of your normal bedtime routine this summer, start moving that time up five to ten minutes each night to ease back into the school routine.

2) Meal Planning. By nature I am a disorganized person, thus the reason meal planning has been so important for us. (Confession: before kids I would wander the grocery store aisles at 5:30 p.m. wondering what to make for dinner. Almost every evening.) The simple act of meal planning has totally changed my life and keeps us eating healthy meals.

During the weekend, we take 30 minutes to look at the upcoming week’s activities, obligations, games, later work nights and create meals around this schedule. This is the time of year I have found to embrace the Crockpot and leftovers. Do you have a late practice? Choose a meal for that night that takes very little preparation or choose to have leftovers that night. Last year Wednesday night was Crockpot night every week in our house.

Soccer or baseball practice during dinner time? We make a few sandwiches or wraps and grab apples and bottles of water to eat in the car on the way to practice. It’s not the perfect, sit-down family meal we all crave, but it keeps our family fueled for their active schedule and it definitely beats that last minute stop by the drive-thru.

3) Snacks. My kids snack a lot. Let’s be honest, we all do. Left to my own devices, I can devour a container of smoked gouda pimento cheese in no time. Yikes! It is why I have realized that healthy eating starts at the grocery store. We eat what fills our refrigerators.  The little bit of time it takes to prepare snacks for a week helps keep our family eating healthy when hunger strikes. I’ve talked to other moms about this strategy and they say it works for them as well.

We fuel our bodies with what we eat. Just like you can’t expect a car on an empty tank to get you anywhere, you can’t expect to perform each day without the necessary energy. We recently started using a “snack drawer” at our house after a friend raved about how well her kids did with them. We have a drawer in our refrigerator solely devoted to snacks. I keep it stocked with fresh in-season fruit that doesn’t take much prepping like apples, peaches, plums, nectarines, and apricots. Next I fill with low-fat cheese sticks, hard boiled eggs and small bags of carrots, bell peppers or cucumbers. Our kids can help themselves to this anytime, so long as it isn’t right before meals. 

When I’m making lunches, it’s easy to grab a bag of carrots or a plum to throw in the lunch. If we’re headed out the door, we can quickly grab a few snacks to keep our energy up throughout the day and help resist the temptation to grab something on the run.  Another local mom said she keeps bags of popcorn, clean granola bars and bottles of water in her car so that any time her kids are hungry they have a snack and aren’t begging to stop for a candy bar.  

Another tip I’ve found helpful is to make items like chicken meatballs in bulk. I keep them in the freezer and pop a few out to take along when I’m picking up a child from practice or packing lunch for work.

Bottom line, snacking is a way to teach kids (and us) the value of being a life-long “eater.”   I believe snacking helps my family stay on track, as long as we are making the right choices. Discuss healthy snack choices with your family and how not-so-healthy choices can make you feel. As always, balance is key. We aim to balance healthy snacking with this reality. It’s okay to enjoy treats every now and then – as long as they are every now and then.  

4) Exercise. This is the first thing to go I have found when the schedule gets hectic. To make working out work, I find a time that works and stick to it. Health care providers recommend at least 30 minutes four to five times a week. Recommended physical activity is anything that gets your heart rate up and keeps it up.

I carve out workout time and protect it like any standing appointment and having a partner builds even more accountability. For me, it’s meeting a good friend for an early morning run or another friend for hot yoga each week. Occasionally, Mat and I can sneak out for a long run together on the weekend. This is time to focus on my health and my well being. I try not to feel guilty about taking that little bit of time for me, because it makes me a better spouse, parent and friend.

Joining a gym or a recreation center connects me with like-minded people. We also like to get the entire family involved, signing up for a 5k run, going on a hike or riding bikes on the River Trails. Bottom line, we really work to not let exercise take a back seat as schedules heat up this fall. Even this small amount of time helps keep us energized and healthy to keep up with a demanding schedule.

5) Scheduled fun. The start of a school year is always a little extra crazy. Quickly the calendar fills and we will feel pulled in multiple directions. During this hectic time it is OK to say “no” to extra activities.  We try to be judicious of our time and surround ourselves with positive people with similar values. We block out time for just our family or close friends.

From a hike at Turkey Mountain, to a movie or brunch after church, we stop, put our phones on silent and enjoy face-to-face time with loved ones. At the Good house, every Sunday evening is family time. The grandparents come over and we enjoy a wonderful meal together. It’s loud and crazy, but it’s always my favorite time of the week. We laugh, connect and discuss the upcoming week. Our electronic devices are all put away.

Just as important as family time – is date night. Every couple needs a chance to be a “couple” again and not just parents. It’s not always practical or feasible to go out. But find a way during the week to have one-on-one time with your spouse. We put the kids to bed early and enjoy making dinner together.

I hope this helps you think about keeping your health goals as school starts with small changes you can make to make them a reality!