Ask Sally: Healthy Habits for a New Year

african american mother with her smiling toddler

New year, fresh start! Whatever your personal resolutions, there’s never a better time than January to adopt some healthier habits for your family. Sally Tannen, Director of 92Y’s Parenting Center, addresses a few questions and offers advice to help get you off on the right foot:

My wife and I love the idea of family dinner with our three girls every night, but with two busy jobs and after-school sports for our oldest daughter, it’s just not realistic. Any suggestions for how we might arrive at the next best thing?

First, it’s great that you and your wife recognize the value of sitting down together at the table as a family. The demands of modern life make this more challenging than it was generations ago, but there’s also something to be said for the rich experiences everyone brings to that table. If a family meal nightly just isn’t an achievable goal, come up with a goal that is achievable. Takeout Taco Tuesdays or Sunday Spaghetti Suppers may not be the nightly dinners of your own childhood, but if everyone gathers to sit and eat together, it’s a fine solution—particularly when you make it something everyone can count on and look forward to. And consider adding a ritual that brings further meaning and something distinctive to your gatherings, whenever they happen. One family I know does “the new and goods” when they sit down for dinner together: Each member of the family shares something new and something good that happened in their day. The dad told me it yields something far more substantive than “How was your day?”

The Takeaway:

Mealtime offers the opportunity to connect and share in a way that makes a lasting and meaningful impact. Gather at the family table and share meals as often as you can and create small rituals—they bring a sense of security and become part of your family’s shared memories.

My husband thinks our 3-year-old should already have chores. As I see it, if our son can’t put his socks on, he isn’t yet capable of helping out around the house. What do you think?

I’m with your husband on this one. By the time a child is 3 or even 2, he can be given the “job” of putting his toys in the toy bin, putting his shoes in the closet, his clothes in the hamper and more. Involving a child in what it takes to maintain order in the house is hugely important for his self-esteem. Give him a rag so he can help you dust or have him match the socks that come out of the laundry. Any “grown up” task you give him will help him feel he is a true citizen of the household. And praise the effort, rather than the results. In focusing on process, not outcome, you’ll be communicating the importance of actions, dedication, and perseverance.

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The Takeaway:

By the time a child is a toddler, he can handle any number of small chores, from taking care of his toys and bits of clothing to helping in the kitchen or with the care of a pet. Give him the chance to prove what he is capable of and it will reward you both. Also, be mindful in how you express praise.

We are the frustrated parents of a classic “beige food” toddler. How can we get her to eat a few vegetables or some protein?

First, don’t worry! Your daughter is likely getting more nutrition than you think. Second, food should involve pleasure, not stress. There are countless ways to make healthy eating fun, beginning with the way in which food is presented. Think less about “vegetables” and adopt an “eat the rainbow” philosophy and spirit. Fill an empty ice cube tray with little bits of a variety of nibbles—blueberries in one compartment, a few sweet peas and bits of mango in others, and see how much of the rainbow your daughter will try—it might be more than she otherwise would. Involving children in food prep is another surefire way to encourage eating more variety. Puree roasted red peppers, give your daughter a pastry brush and let her “paint” the puree over a flour tortilla. Top with sliced turkey, roll, and slice into pinwheels she helped make. Skewered anything (kid-safe skewers) is also always a hit. Another creative approach from a mom who told me her young son would eat salmon but no other fish: she now also serves “white salmon” and “blue salmon.” And he eats them! Most importantly, don’t make food an issue and it’s unlikely to become one.

The Takeaway:

Grow your toddler’s diet and nutrition by making food fun and something to delight in with all senses. Involve your child in food prep to encourage her interest. Get creative, and don’t stress! She will not go off to college eating buttered pasta and Cheerios!

Our two first graders would be happy sitting in the house and playing Toca Builders all day. My husband and I tried involving them in pee-wee little league, but they just weren’t interested. How can we keep them active and fit when video games hold such allure?

It’s almost impossible to remember when the mantra of the house was “If it’s light out, you’re out.” But the benefits remain. Physical fitness fosters confidence in children reduces stress, encourages sociability and offers an ever more evident wealth of physiological and emotional health benefits. Set a good example by having an active lifestyle yourself and find ways to be active together. Team sports aren’t always the answer, and it’s important not to push a child into an activity they don’t take an interest in. Either way, the focus should always be on participation, not competition. Fortunately, even in a place as urban New York City, few of us live far from a playground or park. Get outside together and throw a ball or jump rope or just run around (games like “tag” are classics for a reason). Community centers are a great alternative on cold or wet days. And build activity and a playful element into everyday things. Take the stairs instead of the elevator, doing a counting game as you climb. Head out together to do a chore but turn your walk into a scavenger hunt. And regarding those video games: accept them as a part of life, but remember that children aren’t equipped to set limits on the things that are unhealthy for them, so parents need to. And set those limits of time and access early on.

The Takeaway:

Children should have at least an hour of dedicated physical activity every day (as recommended by the Center of Disease Control and Prevention). Make an active lifestyle part of your family’s everyday routine and keep things fun for young children. Video games? Kids: Play! Parents: Manage!

Director of 92Y’s Parenting Center and Grandparents Center, Sally Tannen has been supporting parents of young children, building community, and creating and offering activities and classes for babies, kids, parents and grandparents for thousands of NYC families for more than 25 years. A mother of four and grandmother of three, Sally’s personal experience continues to enrich and inform her work. Learn more at!