Health Is All In the Family 

by Suki Wessling


The data pours in: Families that eat regular meals together have better physical and mental health. Happily married adults live longer, healthier lives. Children who see their parents seeking physical fitness are more likely to be physically fit themselves.

Amongst modern families, even here in Santa Cruz where wellness is an industry in its own right, focusing on family health can be difficult. But many of our local families embrace healthy living as a family pursuit, from cultivating healthy eating habits to bicycling for transportation.


Healthy eating

Research shows that regular family meals lead to children eating more fresh vegetables and fruit. Regular family meals also have an effect on children’s mental health and well-being.

Mom of two Michele Goodwin-Hooks points out that good eating starts with the parents.

“Let kids see you eating a lot of fresh fruits and veggies,” she suggests. “Even if they don't partake in that moment, you are still modeling that behavior.”

But even when we’re modeling great eating habits, how do we keep the kids away from the chips? First of all, Michele says, don’t shy away from being a little sneaky.

“Feed your kids vegetables when they are hungriest,” she advises. “I often put raw carrots, sliced red peppers, sliced cucumbers or salads out on the table while I am making dinner. Then, when the kids start whining about how hungry they are, I say, ‘Appetizers are on the table!’ and they eat far more vegetables than they would if I served them alongside the meal.”

Local organization Life Lab uses its education programs nationwide to promote the connection between raising food and eating well.

“A study on a youth gardening program in Detroit reports that after gardening, kids have an increased interest in eating fruit and vegetables, possess an appreciation for working with neighborhood adults, and have an increased interest for improvement of neighborhood appearance,” writes mom Kirsten Berhan on Life Lab’s website.

Michele Goodwin-Hooks agrees that in her family, she sees the healthy results of growing and harvesting food.

“Kids love eating what they have picked themselves,” Michele says. “My daughter devours the fresh-picked apples I put in her lunch box because they are so fresh and crunchy and good, and she picked them herself.”


Illness and Wellness

Flu season is upon us, and every time your kids come home from school, they are probably bringing a mix of viruses and bacteria along with them. Families fight illness with methods from all sides of the spectrum.

“We have stayed flu free, without flu shots, for the past three years,” explains mom Tami Huntley, whose daughter is in high school. “Two weeks ago we were all hit with the flu due to me not following my own rules.”

Tami’s rules include:

-          Clean toothbrushes weekly with Listerine

-          When someone in the house is getting sick, wipe down doorknobs and surfaces with disinfectant

-          When anyone feels run down, go to bed!

“The best way to prevent any infection is sleep—sleep heals the body,” Tami explains. “[Taking] Tylenol PM relaxes the muscles and drops you into a deeper sleep.”

Mom Elana Sifry has two daughters. When the younger one was born prematurely, she included alternative treatments with the therapies prescribed for her daughter. Along with acupuncture and chiropractic, Elana swears by Monthly Lunar Treatments provided by Healthy Dragon Holistic Pediatrics.

“Monthly Lunar treatments for children is a tradition that comes to us from Japan,” explains Healthy Dragon’s Sally Sherriff. “Traditional Asian pediatric treatments, consist of Shoni shin, which is the Japanese name for small brushes and tappers that stimulate specific areas on the skin, moxabustion, pediatric tuina (therapeutic massage), nutrition and herbal medicine.”

Elana says that not only does she feel that her children stay well because of these treatments, but the children truly enjoy them.

“My four-year-old (who was born prematurely) really likes it when Sally sings as she does the massage,” she explains. “She says it tickles, especially on her belly.”

“Both of my daughters have had acupuncture from when they were babies,” Elana adds. “Our acupuncturist at that time let the older one take the needles out and she really enjoyed it and was much more willing with the needles because she got to participate. I think it has supported my children’s immune systems to have regular acupuncture.”


Exercise for fun and transportation

Mom of two Kelly Allari says that togetherness goes hand-in-hand with exercise in her family.

“We walk together as a family on the beach and go for hikes,” she explains. “We also bought bikes and helmets and ride together. When my children were just starting out we rode around the top of Blue Ball Park (Anna Jean Cummings) and often at Vasona in Los Gatos. We love to hike Fall Creek, Henry Cowell and Big Basin.”

Kelly says that not only does the exercise promote physical health, but it also allows them to build healthier relationships with each other.

“We laugh and create memories together which helps create opportunities for our children to talk with us about anything,” she says. “I think it helps keep us close with open communication.”

Even the family that avoids sports can find ways to get exercise.  UCSC professor and dad of a teenager Kevin Karplus says that his family took a more radical route to family fitness.

“Our secret to getting enough exercise is not to have a car, and to rely on walking and bicycling for almost all our transportation,” he explains. “Because we have to work and buy groceries, we get all the aerobic exercise we need just in day-to-day living.”

The family relies on a bike trailer for heavier purchases and public transportation for longer distances. Kevin says that this solution fits better with his family than trying to enforce exercising for health.

“We're a family who dislikes exercise and sports, but recognizes that exercise has been consistently shown to be one of the most important things for staying healthy.”


Outdoor time for everyone

According to the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory, humans benefit from interacting with nature in more ways than we could imagine: natural features affect rates of crime, violence, and aggression; time in nature has a measurable effect on kids’ ADHD symptoms; and just being able to view trees from their windows affects children’s self-control.

Local mom Linnaea Avenell and her family recently made a move that affects not only her own family’s connection with the land but also extends that connection to local children.

“For many years my husband and I have been very much committed to the idea that connecting kids with nature would help them become more caring stewards of our Earth and of the other creatures that share it,” Linnaea explains. “Our most recent project in this vein is transforming our home/property here in Soquel into ‘Little Garden Patch Farm.’  Our goal has been to provide a space where children who might otherwise be stuck indoors all afternoon can enjoy child-led time playing outdoors the way so many kids no longer do.”

Rather than sell the property in Soquel where she grew up and where her children and their friends got to roam, Linnaea’s family decided to move in and make it their business. Little Garden Patch Farm now welcomes children five and up for gardening and nature time.

“I love watching a child arrive here after school—tired, batteries running on empty—get thoroughly recharged from running about outside playing games of make believe, playing ‘farm’ with the toys in the sensory tables, shucking corn husks from the garden to feed the goats, laughing at the chickens, exuberantly chasing a ball, and giggling along at story time,” Linnaea says. “It makes all the farm chores and maintenance I do around here feel totally worthwhile!”



Life Lab provides garden and nutrition education both in schools and onsite at their UCSC-located Garden Classroom.

Landscape and Human Health Laboratory  is a multidisciplinary research laboratory dedicated to studying the connection between greenery and human health.

Little Garden Patch Farm offers afterschool programs in Soquel.



Suki Wessling is a local writer and the mother of two children. To become one of Suki’s local correspondents, visit her contact page at



This article originally appeared in Growing Up in Santa Cruz. 

Our thanks to Suki Wessling for providing us with a copy for our archive.

(In April of 2018 the paper was sold to a new owner and soon after the original url for this article and other back issues became defunct.)