No matter how healthy we are the rest of the year, the holidays tend to sabotage our good habits. Social events and travel plans distract us from normal exercise routines, and the food—oh, the food!—undermines the wholesome eating patterns we might normally encourage for our families.
But not all hope is lost: With a little creativity, you can incorporate a variety of family traditions into your holiday season that will not only be fun for the whole family, but will also support your family’s health goals. Here are ten top ideas for holiday traditions that will keep your family active, strengthen your family bonds, and promote all-around health and well-being.
1. Sign up for a turkey trot.
What better way to kick off a healthy holiday season than with a Thanksgiving fun run (or walk—you pick your speed)? Although some turkey trots attract serious runners, many people sign up just for fun—and to burn off calories in advance of the Thanksgiving meal, of course. The length of a turkey trot course varies depending on the specific event, but many courses are relatively short (say, a 5K). If you’re traveling for Thanksgiving, you can even check out turkey trot options in the area you’ll be visiting. But don’t just sign up solo—recruit the whole family.
Variation: Don’t want to sign up for an official event? Create a do-it-yourself version and simply get the whole family out on Thanksgiving morning for a brisk walk around the neighborhood.
2. Bring in natural decorations.
Sure, putting up an artificial tree may be easier, but heading out as a family to chop down a tree of your own burns more calories and makes for great family memories. If cutting down a tree feels too ambitious, make an afternoon of exploring outdoors, looking for smaller natural elements you can use for decoration, such as pine cones or springs of evergreen.
3. Swap family movie night for family story time.
OK, so you don’t actually have to skip those favorite annual Christmas movies. But watching a movie involves vegging on the couch and staring at a screen, while reading holiday stories together will fire everyone’s imagination and involve more real-life family interaction—so try a little of both. Pick a contemporary holiday story, or go for an old classic.
Variation: If you have younger kids, Meg Cox, author of The Book of New Family Traditions: How to Create Great Rituals for Holidays and Every Day, suggests collecting a number of favorite holiday books and wrapping each one in Christmas gift wrap. (You can use library books if you don’t want to buy new books.) Starting several days before Christmas, invite your kids to unwrap one book each day to serve as the “story of the day.”
4. Take the family ice-skating.
Indoor skating rinks are available even in parts of the U.S. that have relatively warm winters, but if you live in a part of the country that gets good snow, you can also get everyone out for snowshoeing or sledding. All of these activities model an active lifestyle for your kids while offering great opportunities for family bonding at the same time.
5, Draw the family together for a nightly “tree sit.”
Holiday traditions that promote activity are great, but sometimes what your family needs most is just the opposite: a break from the stress of holiday bustle and time to nurture the deep joy that the holiday season is supposed to provide. To that end, try this super simple idea from Cox: Every evening, gather the family around your Christmas tree and simply spend fifteen minutes enjoying the lights and the peace of the season. Cox’s own family started the practice because they realized they were going to the work of putting up the tree but then not actually spending time in that room to enjoy the tree after it was up. “We thought, let’s really enjoy this and not let it be just a thing to check off the to-do list,” says Cox. To give some focus to your time together, you can sing Christmas carols together, read bedtime stories (if you have young children), or just reminisce about the day.
6. Boost the nutrition factor in your holiday baking.
It’s okay to enjoy favorite treats for special occasions, even if they aren’t especially healthy, says Vandana Sheth, a registered dietitian and nutritionist in Southern California and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. (It’s a holiday, after all!) But it’s easy to sneak in a bit of extra nutritional value on your holiday baking days without compromising the flavor. An easy way to do that, says Sheth, is by substituting some or all of the flour in the recipe for a whole grain flour or almond flour. (You may need to increase the liquid slightly, depending on how much of the flour you substitute.) Search online and explore healthy dessert recipes that use healthier sweeteners and unexpected nutrients, such as flaxseed, chia seeds, nuts, or fruit.
7, Go out to see the lights—on foot!
Many families already have a tradition of driving around to see the nighttime lights at Christmastime, but you can take this tradition to the next level by ditching the car and walking through a lit-up neighborhood instead. Carry thermoses with hot drinks so everyone stays warm!
8. Count down to Christmas with a (healthy) Advent calendar.
Always a hit with younger kids, Advent calendars are calendars that count down the twenty-four days leading up to Christmas Day. The calendars typically have a pocket for each day, with each pocket containing a small surprise for the child to discover that day. (You can buy a ready-made version or search the Web for ideas on making your own.) While it’s common in many families to put a chocolate or small candy in the pocket, you can get more creative—and healthy. Instead of candy, try inserting a slip of paper detailing a fun holiday craft or a simple activity (say, singing a carol together by candlelight) that your kids can enjoy that day.
9. Give gifts that promote activity.
A bike, Rollerblades, or a soccer ball will foster healthy kids (and parents!) not just during the holidays, but well into January and beyond. Instead of equipment, you can also give the gift of an experience—such as access to exercise classes at a local fitness center or several passes to a rock climbing gym.
10. Break out the board games.
The big holidays of the year tend to revolve around food, making gluttons of us all. Bring balance to these high days by pulling out favorite family games and letting the focus of the day center on shared family fun, not just food. Holiday-themed games do exist (Christmas Monopoly, anyone?), but even ordinary games can become a special tradition if you play with hot drinks on the table and the sounds of Christmas music in the background.
Variation: If your family likes trying new games, search online each fall for the best new board (or card) games of the year, and then pick one to purchase as a whole-family Christmas gift (to be tried out on Christmas afternoon, of course!).