Between work schedules, after school activities, homework, and chores, you may find it impossible to make time for healthy meals that your kids actually want to eat. The challenge is even greater when kids get hooked on the pizza, soda, and chips provided at friends’ houses, activities, and parties. Even the most conscientious parent may find it hard to avoid the temptation of fast food and favorite snacks. But there are solutions!
- Have easy foods on hand for last minute meals. Keep healthy food on hand for quick and easy meals; frozen food can be an easy and healthy choice, especially an all-in-one bag of frozen family meals that are low-calorie and low-salt. Although not as healthy as fresh foods, these frozen meals are generally more nutritious, less fattening, and much less expensive than fast foods and carry-out. Check the grocery store for bags that are a combination of grilled chicken, rice or pasta, and vegetables, but pay close attention to the salt content, which is often very high. If those family meals aren’t quite large enough for your family, you can easily add more fresh or frozen peas, green beans, broccoli, or corn to make it more filling.
- Plan meals in advance. This is difficult for many families, but if you cook on the weekend you can freeze meals (or at least one major ingredient, such as cooked beans or rice). These frozen meals can then be used to make several meals during the week. You can even look online for once-a-month cooking plans that designate one day each month as a “cooking day” and free up the rest of your time for other things. Ask your kids to help you select and even help prepare the dishes, that way they are more likely to eat meals when they are served.
- Out of sight, out of mind. Don’t keep cake, candy, cookies, or chips (the 4 Cs!) in the house. If you want to splurge occasionally, buy a small bag or individual portion as a treat. Keep healthy snacks where kids can reach them. You can “disguise” healthy foods by combining them with favorites. For example, try apple slices with low-fat peanut butter or baby carrots with hummus.or make your own trail mix with a combination of nuts, seeds, and dried fruit.
- Use appealing descriptions for vegetables. A 2017 study found that how you describe vegetables affects how much will be eaten. For example, instead of just saying “green beans” try a more enticing description, such as “sweet, sizzling green beans with crisp almonds.”
- Shopping Tips. Variety is key. It is important to make sure the food you’re eating includes all food groups. The USDA Dietary Guidelines for 2015-2020 recommend veggies, whole fruits, grains, oils, and dairy. Just make sure your dairy choices are either fat-free or low-fat!
- Beware of Processed Foods. When you buy groceries, try to buy “whole foods” (such as a fruit, vegetable, or uncooked meat or fish) instead of processed foods. Ultra-processed foods are typically foods that are more than five ingredients, at least some of which are additives or preservatives. (Yes, just five ingredients!) Despite the “ultra” in the title, the category called ultra-processed foods includes what most experts and the public usually refer to as “processed foods.” Based on these categories, processed foods are simple foods with only 2-3 ingredients that have been preserved or cooked, such as cheese or roasted nuts. Ultra-processed foods and beverages are made with additives or ingredients that you would not typically cook with. Examples of ultra-processed food include many packaged foods that you buy in a supermarket: ice cream, most yogurts, crackers, packaged bread, packaged snacks, and frozen meals such as “TV dinners.” Most are high in fat, sugar, and salt; low in fiber and vitamins; and contain food preservatives. A 2018 study of more than 100,000 adults found that people who ate more ultra-processed foods were more likely to develop cancer, especially breast cancer. Instead, try to choose fish, chicken, turkey, whole grain breads and cereals, brown rice, and fresh fruits and vegetables. Since many breads now say they are “whole grain,” be sure to look for information about exactly how much whole grains the bread actually contains. The 2015 Dietary Guidelines recommends at least 48 grams of whole grains and 25 to 38 grams of fiber per day, much of which may come from whole grain products, such as bread. So check out the grams listed, not just the color or name of the bread.
If fresh fruits and vegetables are too expensive or inconvenient, look for frozen ones without sauces, salt, sugar, or additives. Whole foods are preferable because they have all their nutrients. Experts call these foods “nutrition dense” because you get more nutrients per calorie than you do with most processed foods.
- Avoid misleading “health” claims. Grilled chicken or fish are great choices, but fried chicken or fried fish are no healthier than hamburgers. Remember that how food is prepared (fried, grilled, baked) is almost as important as what is in the food. Most “juice drinks” have more sugar than the fruit they are made from, and contain little or no fiber, and many vegetable soups have more salt than vitamins. If a salad has ham, eggs, cheese, and lots of salad dressing, it may be more fattening than a cheeseburger. Remember that just because a label says “low calorie” or “low fat” or “sugar-free,” doesn’t mean the food or beverage is healthy. Check food and beverage labels for nutrients like vitamins, protein, fiber, and minerals, not just for “bad” things like fat, calories, and salt.
- Transition slowly. If you and your family are used to eating a lot of fast food and processed foods, your kids will need to slowly get used to other foods. For example, try adding some extra fresh fruits and vegetables to your usual meals and gradually decrease the portion size of unhealthy foods s on the plate. Start using whole grain bread, lean meat, low-fat cheese in a sandwich. Try fresh fruit or berries for dessert. Our taste buds adjust over time, so cravings for very sweet or salty foods will decrease if you gradually take those foods out of your children’s diets.
- Get young children involved in the kitchen. The more your kids are involved in making meals and snacks, the more they will enjoy eating healthy food. Ask your kids to help you wash fruits and vegetables, to do simple tasks like snapping the stems off of green beans, or to make a salad. Give your children a few healthy choices for their sandwich or salad, so that they are involved and interested in eating healthy. You can also teach kids where their food comes from by helping them start a small garden.
- Turnwald BP, Boles DZ, Crum AJ. Association Between Indulgent Descriptions and Vegetable Consumption: Twisted Carrots and Dynamite Beets. JAMA Intern Med. 2017;177(8):1216–1218. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2017.1637
- Monteiro, CA, Cannon, G, Levy, RB et al. (2016) NOVA. The star shines bright. World Nutr 7, 28–38.
- Fiolet, Thibault, et al. “Consumption of Ultra-Processed Foods and Cancer Risk: Results from NutriNet-Santé Prospective Cohort.” Bmj, 14 Feb. 2018, doi:10.1136/bmj.k322.
- Diana Zuckerman & Brandel France de Bravo, The Survival Guide for Working Moms (and Other Stressed-Out Adults), 2009.
- United States Department of Agriculture and Department of Health and Human Services, Dietary Guidelines for Healthy Americans 2015, available at: http://www.health.gov/dietaryguidelines/.