When the days get darker and the nights get colder, children and families naturally spend more and more time inside the coziness of home.

Lack of outdoor exercise and play, combined with school breaks and rich, plentiful holiday food, can lead to weight gain. Without a regular schedule of school and play, children can quickly fall into a sedentary pattern that hurts both immediate diet balance and mid to long-term lifestyle habits. At Camp Shane, we’re dedicated to keeping kids stay healthy all year long. Follow the advice below to keep your child healthy and happy.

The Challenge

Replacing candy with carrot sticks, particularly during the holiday season, can be a difficult undertaking. “Making healthy choices for the family during the holiday is tough,” admits Thea Runyan, Co-Founder at Kurbo Health and Lead Behavior Coach for the Pediatric Weight Control Clinic at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital. “It’s nearly impossible to avoid encountering all the favorite guilty pleasure foods that threaten to derail our best intentions. What’s more, entertaining and enjoying the season’s festivities leave little time for exercise. There is hope, however.”

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1. Make sure they keep moving.

Exercise improves one’s immune system and also keeps children from adapting a continuously sedentary lifestyle. During the winter, parents should try to use indoor games that can burn additional calories along the way. Interactive, motion-activated video games may help, but “parents do not need to rush out and buy expensive, hi-tech gadgets to keep kids active and entertained,” notes Allie Matarasso, a clinical dietician from Montefiore Medical Center.

Instead, Allie recommends that parents try affordable activities to entertain kids such as hide-and-seek, scavenger hunts, hula hoop contests, or simply dancing to their favorite music. During holiday get-togethers, try adding a group bike ride or a family football game if weather permits. This may add a new dash of fun to the holiday experience, and assure that kids won’t bored sitting down and talking around the table.

2. Create a meal plan.

Making a daily meal plan ahead of time and getting kids’ input on what will be served also encourages them to eat healthy foods. Discuss meals not only with your children, but with the entire family, so you’re on the same page in terms of planning any healthy holiday feasts. Coordinating the meal in advance also helps ensure that there are enough fruits and vegetables being served at any given party.

Ashlee Piper, Creative Director of Home Chef, says planning winter meals reduces stress and leads to smarter dietary decisions. “Just as packing lunches in advance or going to the store with a list helps save time and stress, meal planning in advance can seriously reduce the (winter) headaches…. [It] ensures a smooth start and finish.” She also encourages parents to change up their usual winter menus in hopes of discovering new healthy foods that their kids will actually eat. Companies like Home Chef can help with both planning and keeping your meals fresh, fun, and healthy. 

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3. Eat nutritious snacks. 

Jackie Keller, Director of NutriFit and bestselling author of Body After Baby: The Simple 30-Day Plan to Lose Your Baby Weight, takes a practical approach to fighting winter health concerns. She suggests that parents have plenty of fruit and vegetables on hand. “Children eat what is easy to grab and keeping these on hand will make it easier for them and you.” Prepare for winter weather by stocking up on easy-to-grab snacks before a storm hits. Allie Matarasso is in strong agreement on this front. “Keep healthy snacks easily available and in plain sight. Instead of keeping cookies and chips on the counters, display fresh fruit, nuts and granola bars.” 

4. Switch recipe ingredients.

Make hearty holiday meals diet-friendly by pulling off some savvy ingredient swaps. For example, sugary hot chocolate mix could easily be replaced with healthier homemade variations that include low fat milk and cocoa powder. Applesauce can likewise be used as a healthy “bait-and-switch” for oil and butter in other recipes. “Remember, the most important thing is not to make your child feel guilty about enjoying the foods they love. Let them know that it’s okay to enjoy the treats once in a while.”

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5. Eat wholesome, vitamin rich foods.

Mareya Ibrahim, Holistic Nutritionist, Mother, and clean living expert from EatCleaner.com, recommends boosting your child’s immune system by encouraging a natural diet that is rich in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans and seeds. “Eating refined fats, sugars and other processed foods can actually have a negative impact on your immune function.” Mareya believes that during the harsh winter months, focusing on vitamins such as Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Carotenoids, Bioflavenoids, Echinacea, and Probiotics can all help keep your child’s immune system strong.

Ashlee Piper adds that families should focus on ‘real food’ rather than prepackaged stuff. “The more prepared and processed foods you bring to the table, the more risk there is for cross-contamination or complication. Focus on using fresh, real, whole ingredients and you’ll never be let down or misled.” 

6. Continue to follow a typical, regular schedule as much as possible.

Consistency is key. Jackie Keller suggests that parents “keep children well fed by starting the day off with a nutritious, filling breakfast.”  A healthy breakfast followed by lunch and dinner at regular times will reduce the likelihood that kids will overeat or consume lots of junk food during the winter months, despite any disruptions in their day.  She also mentions that parents should try to make sure their kids get enough sleep. “During the holidays it’s easy to have schedules disrupted, which tends to run down the immune system and contributes to illness.”

Thea Runyan warns that altering meal schedules is dangerous to your child’s diet. “During the holidays people tend to have a ‘save room for the big meal’ mentality. This is a BAD IDEA. If you don’t eat breakfast or lunch you will be so hungry by the time dinner comes along that you will overeat and make poorer food choices. Make sure you eat normal meals until the big one. Maybe even have a healthy snack before you go to the dinner party, so you aren’t tempted to overeat the red-light hors d’ oeuvres when you first arrive.”

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 7. Don’t forget the basics

Ashanti Woods, M.D., Attending Pediatrician at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, MD, firmly believes that families should also practice “common sense health measures, which include hand washing and parents teaching their children how to cover their coughs and sneezes.” He maintains that kids tend to be “little homing devices for contaminated surface at school or at home” and they also have a fondness for putting these same objects in their mouths. Therefore, the easiest way to keep kids healthy is to teach them appropriate sanitary skills, especially during the harsh winter months.

Additionally, make sure your kids get plenty of fluids. “The most important dietary habit [for children] when it comes to staying healthy is going to be remaining well hydrated. The immune system works more effectively when [it] is full of fluids.” says Dr. Woods. Thea Runyan concurs and adds that drinking lots of water will help prevent kids from overeating.