You know your kids have a sweet tooth. But could you be overindulging it without realizing, just because you’re single?

Most parents have a standard list of kid concerns: grades, friends, growth curves, along with who the hell are Zach and Cody? Single parents have pretty much the same list, but it does occasionally get torqued up by The Situation: Does not being in a traditional nuclear family have any long-term downside? And what can you do about it?

You might as well surrender to the Disney Channel now, but you should consider keeping an eye on sweetened beverages. A new study from San Francisco State University finds that kids from  recently separated or divorced families are more likely to drink sugar-sweetened beverages than kids in families where the parents are married.  And this raises their risk for obesity and heart disease as they grow older (not to mention tooth decay!).

The connection between family breakups and obesity

The link between divorce and obesity isn’t a new one. For a couple of decades now, scientists have noticed that, after controlling for socioeconomic and physical activity, the children of divorce are more likely to have a higher BMI (Body Mass Index) and thus more likely to be obese as adults.

Does overweight necessarily mean unhealthy? That can be a gray area: There is tension between body image and our understanding of how BMI influences health. But with 1 million kids experiencing divorce every year, and 34 percent of U.S. 6- to 11-year-olds considered overweight, instead of obsessing over a scale you might just take a look at what you’re serving for dinner – and how often your family’s eating meals together.

Divorce shouldn’t mean the end of the family dinner

E. Mavis Heatherington, the ground-breaking author of For Better or For Worse: Divorce Reconsidered, was the one of the first academics to make a career of studying single parents. While she is best known for noting the resilience of most children who experience divorce, she also observed a decline in family mealtimes.

Jeff Cookston, professor and chair of psychology at SF State, wanted to take a closer look at how this decline in eating meals together might affect dietary habits in separated or recently divorced families. His team looked at four behaviors closely tied to BMI in adults: produce consumption, how often you eat meals out, whether you eat breakfast at all, and the consumption of sugary beverages.

Do you use sugar as a post-separation stress-reliever?

While divorcing families tended to eat less produce, the real difference was in the juice. Kids in intact families drank a sugary beverage one out of every three days, while those in the study drank 1.3 sugary beverages a day. Four times as much!

“That was a pretty big difference,” says Cookston. And it was easy to understand: Amid the stress of divorce, the sugar buzz is an easy fix. The brain experiences pleasure, the meal goes a little more smoothly. Often enough, the parent doesn’t even notice the beverage choice.

Connecting with your kids may cut their sugar intake

One encouraging finding in Cookston’s study was that difference in sugar consumption between children of divorce and children whose parents were still married goes away when you account for family routines—activities that connect parents and children. In other words, the more engaged single parents were with their kids, the less sugary drinks those kids consumed.

The study was meant to be preliminary, but the findings were strong enough to encourage Cookston to proceed directly to devising an intervention. And while that work is not yet finished, he’s still free to advocate for the shared mealtime as a healthy family foundation.

Turn the chore of meal-making into a whole-family ritual

As a single parent, you may not have extra time to spend bonding, when you’re busy doing all the other things your kids need. But including your kids in meal prep and eating together can be a big part of the solution. “All of these bits and pieces of family life can get wrapped up into mealtime,” he says. Planning meals, shopping, preparing, eating, and cleaning – together – is a tremendous opportunity to teach about nutrition and to solidify family routines.

Your presence is the best stress-reliever of all

That means being present with your kids, physically and emotionally, but also being “present” in the mindfulness sense – living in the moment. “When you are cooking you are very much in the moment,” Cookston says. “You don’t want to cut your finger, you want to make sure you browned everything right. That’s family time together, and it’s very present. We don’t have to think about the fact that mom’s not here with us. We don’t have to think about a number of things that might be distracting and stressful for families.”

“And quite frankly, cooking is a life skill children need,” Cookston adds. “It’s much easier for me to just make dinner for my family than to enlist the kids’ involvement and engagement, but the kids don’t learn the life skills in that way, and ultimately I can’t delegate that work to them later.”

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When he was 3 years old, my son was Curious George for Halloween, but the Tasmanian Devil may have been more apropos. His intense, highly regimented preschool had been stressing him out, and my normally boisterous but sweet kid started lashing out—targeting his classmates and even his teacher. Yikes!

Stress is inevitable, for all of us, whatever our age, especially in times of transition (like, say, you just got divorced and you’re facing single parenthood). The key is in how you cope with it, right? My son’s preschool has been an instructive example of How To Totally Lose It. There’s a long list of factors that contributed to his freakout, and I pulled him out of the school in the end, but let’s focus in on a few things he was dealing with that can turn the best of us into a whirling bundle of negative energy. In honor of my favorite cartoon devil, I’m calling them The Taz Factors. Try them at home, if you’re having a particularly challenging month as a single parent! I promise you’ll be worse off.

TAZ FACTOR #1: Don’t get enough exercise. When my son’s misbehavior started, I asked the teacher how often the kids get to the gym or the playground. “When the academic schedule allows” was her answer. In other words, not every day. Most experts recommend a minimum of one hour of vigorous activity each day for this age group. But here’s the more significant problem: Exercise is perhaps the number one most effective way to relieve stress! Such as, say, the stress of being dumped into a rigorous 8-hour preschool program after a lifetime of one-on-one attention and free play.

The endorphins that exercise causes your body to release make you feel calmer and happier, according to about a billion studies. Whatever your age, if you’re under stress, you can’t afford to skip exercise—you need to make an extra effort to get to the gym, run around the block, do jumping jacks, whatever!

TAZ FACTOR #2: Skip snacks and meals. To better accommodate the academic activities in this preschool class, the kids didn’t have a set snack time. They could ask for their snack if they think of it. My son, being three years old and in a stimulating new environment, apparently never thought of it. Result: No snack. And a pattern of losing it shortly before lunch. Hmmm. Coincidence?

Let’s review some common symptoms of low blood sugar: You get irritable and less effective in your work (which makes you even more irritable). I’ve been there, haven’t you? On a stressful day I try to power through without food. It always backfires, making me crabby and less productive.

Years ago, my doctor recommended that I have a small, protein-rich meal or snack every 2-3 hours (your body digests protein more slowly, which helps keeps your blood sugar—and your mood—on an even keel). When I follow that plan, I do a lot better.

TAZ FACTOR #3: Skimp on Sleep. Sleeping on a cot in an exciting, brand-new environment surrounded by 10 other kids was apparently not my son’s cup of tea. So he stopped napping, thus subtracting 2 hours from his daily sleep total.

Here’s a summary of the results of a 2005 study on sleep deprivation: “Normal subjects typically show acute worsening of mood, with complaints of irritability, depression, and decreased motivation.” Sounds about right. And sleep deprivation is cumulative. Even getting an hour less sleep each night will start to build up and affect you in worse and worse ways.

If you are going through a stressful time, you need to get serious about your bedtime and be sure to clock in at least 8 hours. (Last night I went to bed at 9:30—’nuff said!)

THE TAZ PLAN: Use it and lose it! (Do you think I can start marketing it on late-night TV?) There’s plenty of research to back up my plan, but I can also attest to its effectiveness from personal experience. When I follow the Taz plan, I’m more likely to grind my teeth than to hit my boss (I guess there’s something to be said for being older), but I’m sure to be in a foul mood, with a short fuse.

Do you, like me, tend to skimp on exercise, healthy eating and sleep during times of stress, when you most need those things? Do you then turn in to Taz? Or have you learned how to take good care of yourself when times are tough? Tell all!

Photo by  Seven Shooter on Unsplash

Take some time to play!

I have discovered the Fountain of Youth and it lives in my apartment. It goes by the name of Scott and strongly resembles a 6-year-old boy. My downstairs neighbors will tell you that instead of a soothing tinkle, this fountain sounds like stampeding herd of elephants. But he does help me feel young by providing me with a powerful drug.

Don’t worry—the drug’s all-natural. Dopamine, straight from my own brain. I get it because Scott gets me to be more playful than I would normally be and persuades me to try new things. Both of these activities stimulate your brain to produce more of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which makes you feel happy. And—for me at least—happy feels younger. Play also stimulates the development of new neurons, so even if my body looks its age, Scott helps my brain stay young. (Check out this article by my friend Margaret on all the benefits of play.)

Case in point: At the beach this past summer, Scott started doing forward rolls in the surf. “Try it!” he urged, his scalp full of sand. “It’s really fun!” I did not think it would be fun in the slightest. But, what the heck, I did it just to humor him. You know what? It was, as Scott would say, really, REALLY fun, sort of a cross between body-surfing and riding a rollercoaster. The sand washed out of my hair eventually. (If you called it an organic exfoliating scalp treatment with Atlantic sea salt, it would probably sell.)

A more recent example: I came home tense with stress last night, and Scott asked me to play air hockey. “I have to fix dinner,” I told him. “Pleeeeeeeeeease?” he begged. So I played a few games. We did one with a hex bug skittering all over our mini air-hockey table as interference (“Level 2 air hockey,” Scott called it.) By the end of 3 games, I didn’t need that glass of wine so badly and I started dinner in a much better mood.

The responsibility and logistics can feel overwhelming. But the fact that we have kids also gives us a secret, scientifically proven weapon to fight all that single parent stress. Don’t forget to play with them!

What’s your destress secret? 

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