Have you ever gotten totally excited about eating healthy meals with your family, got started with unparalleled enthusiasm, unrelenting energy, and then… everything seemed to evaporate into thin air?
Long hours, a commute, the 2-year-old’s tantrums, a finicky 8-year old, and your healthy optimism slowly gave place to frozen TV-dinners, skipped breakfasts, and take-out four times a week.
You’re not alone!
Eating healthy on a consistent basis takes time and dedication; and most working parents are already struggling to keep the balance between “being available” to their kids and “getting things done”.
So, how can you manage to consistently have a healthy diet and enjoy delicious food, while avoiding both nagging and drama at the dinner table?
Here are 7 powerful habits of families who consistently eat healthy. By following some of these (start by picking two or three that work best for you), you will slowly create the healthy and joyful family of your dreams.
#1 Eat a Variety of Real, Minimally Processed Foods
Processed foods may be at the top of our convenience foods list, but they are loaded with unhealthy ingredients such as artificial colors and flavors, pesticide residues, steroid hormones, as well as hormone disrupting and disease-causing substances.
It is now well established that pesticides pose a greater risk to children and infants because of their physiological immaturity. Likewise, children who eat foods containing steroid hormones (such as conventional dairy products and meat) have an increased risk of maturing at a much younger age.
On a body-weight basis, children consume more food and water than adults, and exposure to pesticides and other toxic substances during growth can have lasting adverse effects on their health.
This is why going back to the basics, cooking from scratch with real, whole foods and introducing variety in our diet are the first steps we can take to care for the health of our families.
Remember the 16th century adage “the dose makes the poison”? The more varied your diet will be, the less chances you will stand to absorb large quantities of the same harmful substances.
1) Build a healthy pantry by removing foods that contain vegetable oils or hydrogenated fats, high fructose corn syrup, or artificial flavors, colors and sweeteners.
2) As much as possible, purchase foods produced without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides or hormones. Not only will they protect your children’s health, but they are also usually a lot tastier!
3) Add new foods to your diet in addition to the familiar staples. Don’t be put off if your children say they don’t like a particular food. Encourage them to taste it on at least 3 different occasions with different textures before concluding that they really don’t like it.
#2 Be Kind but Firm with Your Kids
The challenges of many parents sound like this:
“How can we make kids love healthy foods and ask for more?“
“How can we avoid the power struggles over what to eat when we’re already exhausted after a day of work?“
For my own parents, it was a mix of “eat your veggies or else…”, “finish your plate because kids are starving in Africa”, great cooking, and traditional European food cultures. You had to eat what was on your plate, but you were never forced to eat a food you really didn’t like.
Discipline has a big role to play in your kitchen, too. It’s important to set boundaries and to show that you, the parent, are the one who makes the food decisions.
The rare occasions when I got side-tracked and asked my kids what they wanted for dinner, the answer was always pasta, sausage, ketchup, and cookies. Yet both love vegetables and healthy food. But they are still kids.
Of course, allowing treats and “kids’ food” on a regular basis is part of the game. Research has shown that setting clear boundaries while scheduling exceptions will reinforce a child’s challenging behavior far less.
1) Do not allow children to dictate the family meal plan, and set a clear rule: what’s on the table is what there is to eat for this meal; your home is not a restaurant. You may get a few episodes of rebellion, but trust me, it does work very well.
2) If kids refuse to eat on a regular basis, and you are concerned, try to think about the reason for their behavior; often times, kids will do everything they can to get our attention around meal times because we don’t spend enough time with them during the day.
3) Do not force kids to eat more than they want or to eat a food that they really don’t like. This may cause an unhealthy relationship with food that they will have a hard time getting rid of when they are adults.
#3 Make Family Meals a Priority
An interesting Harvard study found that families who eat together are twice as likely to eat their five servings of fruits and vegetables a day as families who don’t eat together. It also showed that during family meals, children gain self-esteem, a strong feeling of belonging, as well as increased social skills.
Moreover, a 2010 American study showed that pre-school children who eat dinner with their family at least 5 times a week have less risk to become obese later on.
Sure, we are busy, but as these studies suggest, spending time together around the dinner (or breakfast) table is a good investment in the future of our children.
In my home, we have 5 week-end meals together, and during the week, with lots of organization, we manage to eat breakfast together every day.
1) Look at your family schedule and try to rearrange it so you can have at least one meal per day together.
2) Set table rules: no screens, no texting or other distractions during meal time. Encourage family conversations: this will make eating more mindful and thus help to keep portion sizes under control.
3) If your kids are under 5 and eat slowly, do your best to sit with them and be patient.
#4 Enjoy a Nutritious Breakfast
Yes, it is really about enjoying rather than just eating a nutritious breakfast. Children and adolescents won’t say “Breakfast is my favorite meal,” unless they really enjoy both the food and the moment.
I remember being forced to gulp down a large plate of oatmeal made with raw milk and cheese every single morning, because “the doctor said children need calcium”. I then took my revenge and skipped breakfast during all my adolescent years!
Traditional wisdom as well as studies show breakfast really is the most important meal of the day. A study among preschool children found consistently eating breakfast contributes to a healthy body weight. But we need to make it fun.
1) Plan to make breakfast a relaxed, enjoyable moment: make sure you have enough time to prepare and then eat breakfast, and try to make it a family meal (see #3 above) if you can.
2) Pick a few breakfast foods that provide plenty of nutrients, such as eggs, oatmeal, whole grain rice, vegetables, berries, and come up with simple meal ideas.
3) Do your best to avoid sugary breakfast foods, as these will cause mid-morning spikes and crashes in blood sugar, and may trigger more cravings for sweet foods.
#5 Plan Your Meals Ahead of Time
To me, this is the biggest factor of success in maintaining a consistent heathy diet.
It will make you feel in control a lot more, and you will no longer blame yourself for being too tired and cooking pasta or microwaving TV dinners five times a week.
Meal planning is as simple as sitting down for 30 minutes per week with a pen and a weekly meal planner and jotting down ideas for every meal.
It also has great side benefits: it takes a lot of stress off your shoulders (and stress is not healthy) and it boosts your productivity. How?
You’ll see that spending half an hour a week planning your meals and shopping for food only once a week will save you hours of thinking about what you’re going to make for dinner, of going back to the store, and of having everyone in the house want to dictate the family meal plan.
This way, you will have more time for your other activities and you’ll be more available to spend quality time with your kids.
1) Make a list of your favorite meals as well as the new healthy recipes you want to introduce in your diet. Take small steps.
2) Involve your children. It’s not about them dictating the menu, it’s about them participating in meal planning, shopping and preparation. This will give them ownership in the meal and help avoid fussiness at mealtime.
3) Schedule themed dinners. Italian, Chinese or Indian themed meals are a lot of fun and a great opportunity to try new foods and new flavors.
#6 Cut Out Sugary Beverages
The food industry knows kids love sweet, fizzy juices, hence the ever-growing choice of fruit juices and soft drinks in your grocery store.
And let’s face it, most moms find getting kids to drink water to be a real challenge.
When my first son was one year old, he would point the fruit juice to the nanny, and she would serve him a glass. Two glasses. Or more. Although I was quick to put an end to this habit, it took me close to 2 years until I managed to have him drink only water and turn down sodas and fruit juices. Two years!
Here is why we really need to be very careful with sugary drinks. A 2001 Harvard university study found that each daily serving of soda or other sugary drinks raised a child’s risk of obesity significantly. This, you may already know.
But what may surprise you is that even juices made with fresh fruit can make children gain weight. Fruit naturally contain fructose, which, unlike glucose, gets transformed in the liver into fat. Grape juice or pear juice, for example, should not be consumed in excess, even when they are pure and natural.
1) Make your own drinks: you can make lemonade by squeezing a lemon in water and adding a little bit of sugar or stevia for sweetness if you want to. You can also make herbal teas and serve them cold.
2) To wean kids off sugary drinks, stop buying sodas, and gradually add water to their natural fruit juices. Ending up adding 1 tablespoon fruit juice to 8 tablespoons water is a very reasonable goal.
3) Go a step further and limit sweets and pastries to twice a week or special occasions only.
#7 Eat Fermented Foods and Beverages
This is my favorite healthy eating habit.
It took me a while to discover why I had health issues in my 20s and early 30s…it was because I had ceased to consume the fermented foods and beverages I had been raised on as a child.
And since we’ve been consuming these foods again in our family, we have never had another health issue, including winter colds. Most of my friends think all this is pure luck. No, it’s not luck. It’s the bacteria.
In Asia as well as in many European countries, traditionally, fermented sauerkraut, chutneys, real yogurt and pickles are often served together with meals in order to facilitate digestion. They contain beneficial bacteria as well as helpful enzymes.
Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride, MD, says 90% of our body is made up of microbes:
With every mouthful of sauerkraut you’re consuming billions of beneficial microbes which will be killing the pathogens in your gut driving them out and replenishing the beneficial flora in your digestive tract.
The traditional process of fermenting vegetables uses salt and/or whey. It is easy and provides many health benefits. So why not give it a try?
1) Introduce your family to fermented drinks, such as ginger ale or beet kvass (my kids love both of them).
2) Incorporate yogurt, mango chutney or sauerkraut in some way in your cooking. If you feel adventurous, you can even try to make it home all by yourself.
One Final Thing to Remember…
The key to consistently eating healthy is to apply the 80/20 rule: 80% is good enough.
Don’t try to be the super parent who feeds her family healthy foods every time. Remember, perfect is the enemy of good!
Be kind and compassionate with yourself and your family; allow comfort meals, sweet pleasures and yes, decadent, creamy raspberry chocolate cakes, too. In moderation, these are an integral part of happy, healthy eating!
2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
Time for our quick 2-minute exercise. Let’s take a step back and answer some simple questions:
- Does cooking daily feel a bit like drudgery? Do you struggle to cook healthy meals on a regular basis? What are some of the ways you could make this easier and stress-free?
(Note from Sumitha: I’ve got an excellent article lined up for you about this next week… look out for it! To receive the article directly in your mailbox, sign up here if you haven’t already done so.)
- How do you normally handle tantrums and “picky eater” behaviors? Do you find yourself nagging consistently? Can you find ways that work in your family to go from a nagging parent to a master motivator?
- What’s in your fridge right now? Sugary drinks, processed meats and desserts? Would replacing them with yogurt and fresh fruits help nudge your family towards healthy choices? On the same note, how about your pantry? Could you try replacing the pack of potato chips and Doritos with almonds and baked snacks? Will there really be a rebellion, or will the family just adjust to the new choices after a bit of grumbling?
If you don’t mind sharing, I’d love to hear from you. Start a discussion in the comments and I’ll be happy to help you out.
Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
Through the rest of this week, try to reflect about your meals and your schedule. Take note of what you could change, and pick any 2 or 3 of these habits that you can incorporate in your family, so you can create joyful, consistent, healthy eating habits for your whole family!
This exercise in mindfulness will make it a lot easier for you to embrace healthy eating habits and routines more fully on the long-term.