What Does It Really Mean to Have a Healthy Family Home?
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Home is where the heart is. But perhaps a more salient expression for these troubled times might be “Home is where the health is.”
When factoring in sleep, and especially in an era of remote work and learning, people spend more hours at home than anywhere else. A healthy home, therefore, has a huge impact on your family’s well-being. Even before the pandemic, my family spent a lot of time at home. But the past two years have prompted us to rethink our living space in a more deliberate way, as health concerns have been top of mind. Here’s how experts suggest fine-tuning your home environment to get the most benefit.
Pay attention to where and how you eat.
Establishing routines at home helps your family build in healthy habits. Start with the most basic of all needs: nutrition. “It’s really important to sit down when you eat,” says Lolita McDavid, a pediatrician at University Hospitals in Ohio. “If you eat while walking around, you don’t really pay attention to what you’re doing.” Instead of consuming balanced meals and learning your body’s satiety cues, you’re grabbing the nearest snack, which is more likely to be processed food.
For meal times: “Make sure there’s a comfortable table space that fits the family,” says Amie Bettencourt, a child and adolescent psychologist at Johns Hopkins University. According to Bettencourt, one way parents can discourage on-the-go grazing is to make sit-down meals a regular part of their family’s routine. “Routines are so critical for families — they help children feel safe and in control of their world,” she adds.
Make the business of eating more intentional by giving kids some ownership over the family’s pantry. Bring them with you when you shop and let them have a say in what groceries, including snacks, are purchased, McDavid says. Steer them towards wholesome alternatives that they can help themselves to, like granola bars made of nuts and oats. To further stack the deck, Eva Tseng, an internist in Maryland, suggests making those wholesome snacks accessible. Put out a fruit bowl in a prominent spot in the kitchen. Or designate a “healthy snack drawer” and leave treats in the basement freezer.
Arrange the home for movement and exercise.
Routines can also help families stay strong. Regular exercise comes with a host of benefits — from strengthening the immune system to lowering cardiovascular disease risk to improving mental health. Current CDC guidance recommends that adults engage in physical activity for a minimum of 30 minutes a day, five days a week, and kids need even more. If that sounds daunting, remember that exercise doesn’t have to be all or nothing, Tseng advises. “If you can’t do it every day, start with 30 minutes several times a week.” Double the impact by incorporating physical activity into play time with the kids. “So if you’re watching the kids for a half hour before dinner, shoot hoops with them or play tag — something that keeps everyone active.”
To foster a family exercise routine that’s more likely to stick, set up the house so that exercise is an obvious priority — whether it’s pulling out the exercise bike so that you can reach it more easily or putting out balls or other equipment directly in the kids’ line of sight. “Families can also make a jar with cards — each printed with a different idea for a physical activity,” Tseng says. When the kids are bored, they can pull one out and include everyone in the fun. Studies show that kids take their cues from their family: Kids of active parents tend to be active themselves. And so exercising together as a family boasts benefits that go beyond the simple fun of a game of hide-and-seek.
Organize kids’ spaces to empower them to stick to routines.
Whether they’re centered around the dining table or the work table, you can facilitate routines by creating conditions that make them easy to follow. For instance, set aside space in the kids’ rooms where they can get organized, says Bettencourt. “Clear plastic bins are great for laying out kids’ clothes the night before to make getting ready for school in the morning easier.”
To ensure routines have staying power, Michelle Felder, therapist and owner of Parenting Pathfinders, suggests “writing them out and putting them in a place that’s accessible to everyone.” For example, maybe every Tuesday is Taco Tuesday, or Sundays are when everyone helps tidy up the playroom. Or kids can create checklists on erasable whiteboards and check tasks off as they’re completed. She notes, however, “that routines can evolve and change as children grow, so it’s important to be flexible.”
Assess the materials in your home — then make thoughtful replacements.
So your family’s fed, dressed for the day, and you all get regular time on the treadmill or pavement — but what about the cushions that kids bury their faces in, the soap they wash their hands with or the carpet they sprawl out on?
Although plastics and chemicals are used in a lot of products, we’re only just beginning to understand their far-reaching impacts on our health and well-being. Besides their ubiquity, scientists have discovered that plastic remains in our bodies long after we ingest it or breathe it in, impacting our immune and reproductive health. And children, with their still-developing minds and bodies, are particularly vulnerable. Given that plastics are so pervasive — appearing in products as varied as toys, cosmetics, and furniture — what’s the best way to reduce our exposure to these harmful materials?
One easy fix that Jennifer Jones, founder and principal designer at Niche Interiors in San Francisco, California, suggests is to replace your nonstick pans with alternatives like ceramic, which don’t break down and release toxins when heated. “Another simple switch is to swap traditional cleaning products for non-toxic, plant-based cleaners like Seventh Generation,” Jones says. Many traditional cleaning products have long ingredient lists with substances that have been linked to asthma and allergies. They typically also include petroleum-based products that harm the environment. “Replacing them is a win-win all around,” Jones noted.
And don’t forget the hidden materials!
Jones also suggests checking to see if your furniture has been made with flame-retardant chemicals, which have been linked to low fertility rates and asthma, among other problems. “The chemicals are in the foam core of your sofa cushion,” says Jones. “When you sit on it, tiny particles of all these chemicals get released in the air.”
Generally speaking, when considering furniture purchases, avoid petroleum-based plastics like polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs). Commonly used to treat upholstery or carpets so that they’re more resistant to stains, PFCs persist in the body for years, says Marilee Nelson, founder of Branch Basics, a natural cleaning products company. And PVC has been shown to interfere with normal hormone functioning and is implicated in early puberty in girls and birth defects in boys. “Look instead for furniture made out of solid wood and non-toxic finishes,” recommends Nelson. Companies like IKEA have made a commitment to limit the use of chemicals in their products wherever possible, but reach out to retailers and ask if you’re unsure what their manufacturing practices are.
Regularly clean your carpets and choose natural materials where possible.
Carpets are an area of concern for Megan Thompson, owner and lead designer at Spark Interiors in Denver, Colorado. According to Thompson, carpets are a “contributor to poor indoor air quality inside the home.” Most conventional carpets have plastic backings and adhesives made out of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which include such noxious chemicals as formaldehyde, benzene, and ethylene glycol. Thompson prefers hardwood floors with water-based finishes, but if her clients prefer carpeting, she directs them towards rugs with natural ingredients like wool or cotton.
For those who can’t remove or change their carpets — families who rent, for instance — Jones notes that “having a well ventilated house can prevent harmful toxins from building up inside.” And simple steps such as “taking your shoes off at the front door has been shown to reduce dust and toxic chemicals inside your home.”
Boost air quality with open windows
While the materials within your home can adversely affect indoor air quality, one of the best solutions is fortunately a simple one: Opening the windows promotes good cross-breeze air flow. Pair that with an efficient vacuum, outfitted with a HEPA filter, to suck up fine pollutants that settle on the ground.
For those who want extra assurance, Nelson suggests installing an HVAC system. “With a properly designed, installed, and maintained HVAC system, you can turn your whole house into a clean air machine.” If an HVAC system is out of reach, air purifiers scattered throughout your living space can also boost air quality. Or rig a box fan and MERV-13 filter setup as an economical alternative. Several DIY YouTube channels cover the basics of how to construct one. No matter which option you choose, however, be sure to periodically change the filters and double check that the air purifying solution is powerful enough for the volume of air you want to clean.
Finally, feel empowered to make changes when you need to.
“We don’t have [total] control over many of the places we go to — school, work, a restaurant,” says Nelson. “But we do have [some] control over what we put in our house, and that can make all the difference.”
At times, protecting our family’s health can seem like an overwhelming proposition, especially with everything else parents have on their plates. But any positive change — no matter how small — can make a tangible difference in your home life.