Adult cutting up vegetables for a kid

Child Health | one year ago

8 Tips to Kick-Start Kids’ Heart-Healthy Habits

Kids are developing risks for heart disease at younger ages. An Atrium Health Levine Children’s pediatrician shares tips to begin heart-healthy habits early – and how to make them fun.

Start kids with healthy habits young, believes Lisa, mom to two-and-a-half-year-old Jacob, a patient at Atrium Health Levine Children’s Mountain Island Pediatrics. Lisa creates routines that make Jacob as healthy as possible. But Jacob doesn’t know that. He just knows that he’s having fun.

“Make a game out of healthy habits and even make up silly songs about what you are doing,” Lisa says. “It’s all about your attitude and the way you look at things. Your kids will pick up on your energy.”

For exercise, Lisa and Jacob have dance parties and games of chase. For healthy eating, Jacob helps in the kitchen and loves trying meals he creates.

Such activities help children build heart-healthy habits when they’re young, and these habits can help keep them healthy throughout their lives. This has never been more important. Pediatricians are seeing children acquire risk factors for heart disease at younger and younger ages, due to increased screen time and processed foods. With a series of small changes, however, parents can set kids up for a lifetime of health.

“Starting heart-healthy habits when kids are young will help make them feel better when they're doing activities in gym class. It'll make them sleep better at night. It'll help them be well rested in the daytime,” says Dr. Ranya Chakra, a pediatrician at Atrium Health Levine Children’s Rock Hill Pediatrics. “With healthy eating, exercise and sleep, we’re setting children up for a lifetime of healthiness.”

Chakra offers eight tips to create heart-healthy habits for kids in ways that are fun, positive and even delicious.

1. Model good behavior

Lisa likes Jacob to see mom and dad snacking on new foods before he tastes them for the first time. They’ll talk about the food, where it came from and what it tastes like. This makes Jacob more willing to try that food, too.

“We can’t expect kids to do things that we don’t do,” Chakra says. “The more that kids see parents eating healthy foods, the more they’ll want to emulate them.”

 2. Start with small goals

“Healthy habits start with small changes,” Chakra says.

Maybe one week, the goal is for everyone in the family to eat one more vegetable a day. Maybe it’s to be outside for 30 minutes daily. Maybe it’s less time in front of a screen. Begin with little changes that promote a healthy lifestyle and can be easy to adopt. Shooting for perfection can make the effort more frustrating than motivating.

3. Encourage healthy eating at mealtime

“It’s important to have a meal at the table, when everyone comes together with no distractions,” Chakra says. In other words, no phones or screens.

Focus mealtimes on conversations and learning about each other’s days. Allow children to eat what they want without calling attention to what they eat, nor demanding that they finish everything on their plate. One rule Chakra encourages is to allow seconds, but seconds can only be for vegetables.

“Whatever the children have on their plate is what you want them to eat, and you give them the ability to choose what they want from a plate that will make them a healthier person,” Chakra says.

4. Make exercise fun 

Exercise shouldn’t feel like a punishment. Make it something positive. Maybe it’s a family walk, scavenger hunt or game in the backyard. Maybe it’s taking the dog for a walk. Or maybe it’s finding a new use for screen time.

“I know that screen time has become the bane of pediatricians’ existence because of how much our children rely on it, but you can use it for exercise,” Chakra says. “Tell kids to check out YouTube dance videos or maybe  find a Zumba class to do together.”

Exercise doesn’t have to start with hour-long workouts. Instead, begin with just 15 or 20 minutes and go slow. Build from there.

5. Involve kids in grocery shopping and cooking

Involving kids in food decisions can make them more likely to try new foods. Maybe each week, a child can choose a new flavor, perhaps a new fruit or vegetable, for the family to try. Together, you can choose a recipe and prepare the meal. This gives kids ownership in their food decisions, while encouraging them to embrace new foods and dishes.

“Having Jacob involved with cooking gets him more excited about the food,” Lisa says. “It makes him proud that he ‘made’ the item and gives him a sense of control and empowerment.”

6. Think of creative rewards (that aren’t food)

Chakra encourages families to create fun competitions with incentives attached. Perhaps the person who completes an hour of activity a day wins a prize at the end of a week, or the person who eats an extra vegetable every day wins a prize. Maybe the kids even compete with their parents.

“Make it family-centered time. If kids see the ways that their parents are making themselves healthy, they’ll want to make themselves healthy, too,” Chakra says. “Offer rewards with incentives – but don’t make the incentives food.”

7. A Shortcut: Think 5-2-1-0

Atrium Health Levine Children’s, along with community partners, leads a Healthy Together initiative. Following these guidelines – and even taking steps toward following them – can help your child begin heart-healthy habits.

  • 5 - Eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables every day.
  • 2 - Limit recreational screen time to fewer than two hours per day.
  • 1 - Be physically active for at least one hour per day.
  • 0 - Avoid sugary drinks, and instead aim for water or low-fat milk.

Need inspiration to get started? Check out our program.

8. Know when to see a pediatrician

Some symptoms warrant a visit to the doctor. For example, a child who’s losing weight unintentionally or having to go to the bathroom more frequently during the night may indicate diabetes. Constant headaches could signal high blood pressure. But even children who aren’t exhibiting unusual symptoms should come in to see a doctor at least once a year.

“The pandemic caused a decrease in the rates of annual physical exams for children and adolescents and we really want to get kids back into the office each year,” Chakra says. “During yearly checkups, we go through eating habits, we go through exercise and physical activity, we go through school performance, sleep, all that good stuff.”

It’s important to note these tips won’t prevent congenital heart conditions or defects that children are born with. Instead, these tips are to create healthy lifestyles that minimize the risk of acquiring heart disease later in life. For information on congenital heart conditions, please visit