When Sarah Malufau found out about the Fit Families program, she saw an opportunity to help her family lead healthier lives.
“We thought that this would create a great foundation for our son Patrick and really help us as adults, too,” Malufau said.
The 12-week series of classes provided by the New Mexico State University Cooperative Extension Service in Las Cruces teaches kids about nutrition, exercise and self-esteem by engaging the entire family. This year, the Fit Families program received a $21,500 grant from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of New Mexico’s Healthy Kids, Healthy Families® initiative.
In addition to supporting the program in Las Cruces, the grant will help NMSU translate the classes into Spanish and expand the program for the first time to Anthony, a small community on the New Mexico-Texas border with a large Spanish-speaking population.
Families with a child age 5-12 can enroll in the no-cost program on their own or through referrals from health care providers or other organizations, such as the Doña Ana County Head Start program. Lessons are taught by a team of educators, including the Fit Families program coordinator, community health workers, and dietetic and public health student interns.
The classes’ whole-family approach to health and wellness worked well for Malufau’s family. They learned how to incorporate more vegetables and fruits into their diets and discovered new ways to exercise as a family. Malufau said she was able to lose weight, and her family has been more physically active since completing the program.
“I like the physical activity part,” Patrick said of the classes, which include fun games and activities that get participants’ hearts pumping. Each week, kids dance, play tag or participate in friendly competitions with their parents. While the activities vary, they’re always hands-on exercises that the whole family can do together.
For Laura Roper and her daughter Sapphira, a favorite take-away from Fit Families has been learning how to prepare easy, healthy meals.
Each class starts in the kitchen, where kids and parents learn a new recipe and work together to chop, stir and cook nutritious foods. When the food is ready, families enjoy the meal together and spend time talking. Participants practice mindful eating and learn about portion control, the importance of increased fruit and vegetable consumption and other nutritional information.
In one class, families learned how to make a healthy spaghetti sauce using asparagus, mushrooms and squash. Teaching kids about healthy cooking can help create healthy habits that last a lifetime.
“I think it’s really fun because the kids can cook,” Sapphira said. “They can learn how to cook for the first time in their life so they can be better cooks when they’re older.”
Many families struggle with finding the time to cook nutritious meals at home, something that Laura has experienced firsthand. The quick recipes she learned at Fit Families have helped Laura and her family eat at home more often instead of eating out, where food tends to be higher in calories, fat and salt.
Confidence and self-esteem are important components of whole-child health, and the Fit Families program provides families with the tools to help kids develop a positive self-image.
In one class, parents learned about mindful parenting and how they can help build their child’s self-esteem through “praise for being,” or positively acknowledging their child for who they are.
While parents received one lesson, the kids worked on “Me & Mine” books, where they wrote about their likes and their families, helping them reflect on the foods and activities they share with their families.
Every week, families set SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, timebound) goals for their nutrition and physical activity. Examples of goals include filling half a plate with veggies and fruits for dinner or taking a family walk at least three times during the week.
Preventing chronic illness
According to the New Mexico Department of Health, more than one in four kindergartners and one in three third-graders in New Mexico were overweight or obese last year, putting them at greater risk for developing chronic health issues and becoming obese later in life.
“We know that diabetes, heart disease and chronic illness are big problems affecting our older community but are also becoming more prevalent in our younger citizens,” said Fit Families Program Manager and Certified Health Education Specialist Lucinda Banegas-Carreon. “Teaching children about health can hopefully prevent certain illnesses as they grow.”
By engaging the whole family, the Fit Families program helps parents learn how to encourage healthy behavior and helps kids get excited about trying new foods and activities at home.
“It’s really made a deep impact in our family,” Malufau said. “I know that it’s really helped me to be a better mother and a role model for Patrick in order to keep him in a lifestyle of health and fitness.”