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One Year on, Could the Family Challenge Be Becoming a Habit?

By Sally Squires
Tuesday, May 8, 2007

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

A year ago, the Lean Plate Club launched the first Fit for Fun Family Challenge, a four-week effort designed to help families change old habits, shake off the winter doldrums and prepare for summer. Each week, participants received one simple eating goal and one simple activity goal -- and we tracked their progress in the paper.

The second annual Family Challenge begins today -- find details in "The Family Challenge," below -- so this seems like a great time to check back with the five families who allowed us to follow their efforts a year ago -- and find out whether what they learned 12 months ago stuck with them.

"We are a work in progress," laughs Jewell Graves of Upper Marlboro. "We are by no means finished."

But like the four other families we followed a year ago, Graves, her husband, Lloyd Tucker, and their 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, she often served them soft drinks or made 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.

While the family would like to be even more active, they've made strides there, too. Graves cut her hair short to make exercising easier. She also pays her son, Kai, 16, to be her daughter Quinn's personal trainer. After school, they walk a mile -- and now a number of other neighborhood kids tag along, too. Then Kai starts Quinn, 10, on a slow speed on the family's treadmill while he works out on a small trampoline nearby or does ab crunches.

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 made over the year:

Think outside the gym. Amy Melnick of Burke has asked her family to take a bike ride to celebrate Mother's Day. Melnick also now 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 before they go their separate ways to errands and other activities.

In Alexandria, Jennifer Schroeder puts her 6-month-old son, Dane, in a carrier and walks son Luke to and from preschool on most days. Later, the trio picks up son James from kindergarten. For that trip, Luke rides a new bicycle with training wheels.

Just eight weeks ago, the Smith family in Germantown added Maggie to their clan. Having a new baby in the household not only altered routines, but it also makes regular exercise particularly challenging. "It's easier to do exercise if we do it as a family," Diane Smith says. So they often take long walks together with Maggie in a baby carrier or jogging stroller.

Quench thirst with water first."We found it has a domino effect," says Brenda Smith of the District. "We started eating better and feeling better." Jewell Graves eliminated battles with Quinn about drinking Sprite when the family switched to bottled water. Outside the home, Graves instituted a new rule: Drink two bottles of water first. If Quinn is still thirsty, she can have a Sprite.

Snack smartly. Melnick provides nonfat yogurt and cottage cheese that her kids, Jonah, 10, and Talia, 6, mix with a teaspoon of jam. She 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." Graves stocks Caesar salad fixings and chicken breasts so Kai can fix a healthy salad when he is ravenous at 5 p.m.

Go beyond salad. In Germantown, the Smith family branched out from eating bananas, oranges and apples to other kinds of fruit. "We tapped into pomegranates, blood oranges and apricots," Diane Smith says. "Fruit is dessert before dessert."

At Melnick's house, fruit and veggies are served at every meal.

In the District, Brenda Smith discovered that she doesn't much like green salads unless they include heartier vegetables such as beans, beets and cauliflower. Inspired by the new vegetables they tried on the family challenge, Smith and her family have been discovering more produce ever since. "We make a new vegetable like we might a new meal," Smith says. "It's been surprising what my kids like."

Among the vegetables that her children now regularly request are cabbage, butternut squash, sweet potatoes and bok choy, as well as the yucca, yams and plantains 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 staying the course can add up to big rewards.

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