Small changes can add up to big rewards

Changing habits can be fun for a few weeks. But for most people, the novelty soon wears off. Despite good intentions, many of us fall back into our old patterns, even when they can risk our health.

A year ago, the Lean Plate Club launched the first Fit for Fun Family Challenge, a four-week program that was designed to help families change old habits, shake off the winter doldrums and prepare for summer. We tracked the progress of five families in this column.

The second annual Family Challenge begins today. Each week, participants will receive one simple eating goal and one simple activity goal, ranging from consuming healthier foods to finding ways to be active together as a family.

This week’s goals are to eat more fruit and vegetables and to get your exercise gear and equipment ready. Future weeks will include eating more whole grains, cooking a meal together and finding ways to increase calcium-rich food.

“We are a work in progress,” says Jewell Graves of Upper Marlboro, Md., whose family joined in last year’s challenge. “We are by no means finished.”

But, like the four other families we followed a year ago, Graves says that her husband, Lloyd Tucker, and two children were surprised to discover that the small changes they made during the challenge could be a springboard to healthier habits.

Since the challenge ended, “we gave up all red meat, sodas and have switched to whole grains,” Graves says. “We went from whole milk to 2 percent and now use only completely fat-free milk. It was an easy, gradual transition that we made after the challenge.”

Graves also solved what she calls the “grandparent syndrome.” When the kids visited her mother, they often were served food that the family had eliminated at home. “I was fighting a losing battle,” says Graves, who now stocks her mother’s house with bottled water and healthy snacks.

The family would still like to be more active — and they’ve made strides there, too. Graves now wears her hair short to make exercising easier. She pays her son, Kai, 16, to be her daughter, Quinn’s, personal trainer. After school, they walk a mile — and now several neighborhood kids tag along. Then Kai starts Quinn on a slow speed on the family’s treadmill, while he does ab crunches or works out on a small trampoline nearby.

Graves has further goals, but the key to her success so far is to start with small, easily sustained changes: “We chose those things to change in our lives that we could control and be constant with.”

Here are some of the other easy adjustments that the families have learned to make over the year:

* Think outside the gym. Amy Melnick of Burke, Va., has asked her family to take a bike ride to celebrate Mother’s Day. Melnick also walks the sidelines of her children’s soccer and T-ball games rather than just sitting as a spectator. And the family makes it a habit to walk, toss a Frisbee or ride a bike each weekend morning.

* Quench thirst with water first. “We found it has a domino effect,” says Brenda Smith of Washington, D.C. “We started eating better and feeling better.” At the Graves household, Jewell instituted a new rule: Drink two bottles of water first. Then if her daughter still is thirsty she can have one Sprite as a treat.

* Snack smartly. Melnick provides nonfat yogurt and cottage cheese that her kids mix with a teaspoon of jam. She also takes trail mix along on family hikes, but controls portion sizes carefully. “We make sure that it’s not a bag with enough servings for 10,” she says. This habit has already rubbed off on her kids. “I hear my son saying to (his sister) Talia, ‘Make sure you only take a portion.’ It’s amazing that if you say things over and over, it really starts to sink in.”

* Go beyond salad. Inspired by the new vegetables they tried on last year’s family challenge, Brenda Smith and her family have discovered more produce since. “We make a new vegetable like we might a new meal,” she says. “It’s been surprising what my kids like.” Her children now request cabbage, butternut squash, sweet potatoes, bok choy as well as yucca, yams, plantains and other vegetables that the family often buys at a Latino market. “We are trying all kinds of vegetables,” Smith says, “and actually acquiring a taste for them.”

That fits with research findings that show it can take about seven times of trying a new food before it is accepted — another example of how small changes can add up to big rewards.

Join Sally Squires online from 10 to 11 a.m. Tuesdays at www.leanplateclub.com, where you also can subscribe to the free Lean Plate Club weekly e-mail newsletter.

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