A study in the British medical journal The Lancet points out that of all the world's cultures, children who are born and grow up in Japan have the longest lives and healthiest lifestyles. One of the key reasons? It has to do with the way their families manage meals and choose their food.
The result is that Japanese children can expect to live to age 73 with no major illnesses or disabilities, and to have an overall life expectancy well into their 80s. In America, the expected ages for children born today are much lower--only 65 and 76, respectively.
Meet Naomi Moriyama, a writer who grew up in Japan but now lives in New York. Together with her husband William Doyle, she's the author of Secrets of the World's Healthiest Children, which just came out in paperback, and which examines lessons that American families can take from Japanese parents.
Here are the seven most important things Moriyama says to do.
1. Use smaller plates.
This is one of the easiest changes to make--do it once, and you're done. If your family's dinner plates are standard sized American ones, perhaps 8 inches wide or more, substitute smaller, Japanese style plates, which are more likely to be four or six inches wide.
You probably don't even have to buy anything new, Moriyama writes. "Simply give your larger serving plates a break (put them up on the highest shelf) and serve meals on smaller plates, like the side, salad, bread plates, you already have."
2. Encourage physical activity.
Nearly every child in Japan (98.3 percent of the population) either walks to school or rides a bike. Overall, Japanese children spend a greater portion of their day engaged in physical activity than Americans.
This isn't surprising news for anyone with kids in elementary school, where recess is often almost a thing of the past, parents are required to hover over children as they travel to and from school, and where physical activity is often limited to organized classes and sports. Bottom line: If that all sounds like your neighborhood, encourage your kids to be the exception to the rule.
3. Involve your kids in cooking and prep.
It's difficult to get an entire family to eat dinner together, never mind to be involved in all of the meal preparation as well. However, to the extent you can make at least some meals an all-in family experience, research suggests it can help kids live healthier lifestyles.
"Eating family meals together is a practice that many families around the world, including in Japan, are finding harder and harder to pull off," Moriyama writes. "But it is a goal worth striving for, because the potential health benefits for children appear to be huge."
4. Get your kids used to trying new things.
It's understandable to want to stick to food that you know your kids like, or that they at least will eat without a fight. That said, like any other practice, the idea of exploring and trying new foods is something that will endure, and being open to new things will make it easier to make good choices as they get older.
If you're concerned about picky eaters, I suggest checking out this article that one of my colleagues at Scary Mommy wrote: 6 Words That Will End Picky Eating. They really work.
5. Make mealtime an event, and something to enjoy.
Again, I don't mean to turn this into fantasyland; certainly not every meal will be a tranquil, celebratory experience. But that should be one of the goals--to make meals into more than mindless eating exercises (while you and your kids do something else at the same time).
Sitting at a clean table, in a nicely lit kitchen for example, and working to ensure that squabbles and stress are absent can go a long way in this regard. Of course, you can't always control your kids' moods, but you can certainly control your own. Decide that you won't contribute to the drama--and model good behavior for them in the process.
6. Choose healthy, low-density foods.
I promised at the start of this article that it won't require adopting a Japanese diet. That said, adapting Japanese practices could require making some different choices. Typical Japanese meals consist of a series of four or five smaller-sized dishes, Moriyama says: for example, a small bowl of soup, a small bowl of rice, and perhaps a small sized portion each of tofu, fish or meat, plus two vegetables.
"Serve more plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, and healthy fats," Moriyama writes, "like heart-healthy omega 3-rich fish, and less processed food with added sugars and salt. This food pattern is relatively low in calories, high in nutrients, and more efficiently filling by being lower in calorie density or "calories per bite."
7. Remember you're the boss.
Finally, remember that as the parent, you're in charge--and use an authoritative approach, rather than an authoritarian one. This means basing the things you ask of your children on rational, thought-out explanations (as opposed to insisting that they do as you say simply because you're a parent).
Of course, this advice applies to much more than food choices if you want to help your kids become happy, healthy and successful. As Moriyama writes, "It is possible for ... parents anywhere in the world to build an environment for children that, although far from perfect, can inspire them to adopt tastes and habits that will increase their chances of enjoying as long and healthy a life as ... possible."