Healthy Eating the Whole Family Can Enjoy
Eating nutritious food is important at every age. For children, a healthy diet with the right serving sizes ensures proper growth and development. As you get older, you need to eat healthy to give your body energy throughout the day and to ward off health issues such as diabetes, heart disease, and other health conditions.
Everyone’s nutritional needs are different, says Denver-based dietitian Jessica Crandall, RD, CDE, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. For example, a pregnant woman needs more calories than an 85-year-old man. A teenager needs more protein than a younger child.
Age, height, weight, and activity level, as well as any health conditions, impact nutrient and calorie needs, but if you cook for a family, it can be difficult to make sure everyone’s meeting their daily quota.
Here are some tips for serving healthy meals to the kids and the adults at your kitchen table.
Fruits and Vegetables First
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, children younger than 3 years need two servings of fruits and vegetables a day, increasing to about three daily servings at ages 4 to 8. Boys age 9 to 13 who are moderately active should get four servings a day, while girls of the same age who are moderately active need only 3.5 servings a day. Most adults need five servings of fruits and vegetables each day.
Here are some tasty ways to add these nutritious foods to your family’s diet:
- Add sliced bananas or blueberries to morning cereal.
- Offer a fruit smoothie for breakfast, lunch, or even as dessert. “It’s a sneaky way to give your children the vitamins and minerals they need and to help them stay hydrated,” Crandall says. Include some sweet-tasting veggies — like carrots — in the smoothie for a nutritious boost.
- Request fruits and vegetables with your favorite foods, such as topping pancakes with strawberries or pizza with broccoli.
- Add slices of tomato and cucumber as well as lettuce or sprouts to sandwiches. Or, swap mayo and mustard with pureed hummus or pesto.
- Add peas or carrots to tomato sauce — and serve it over whole-grain pasta.
Your children don’t have to eat all their fruits and vegetables in one meal, Crandall says. They may not protest as much if you spread them out and add just a single serving to every meal and snack.
Dipping Into Dairy, Proteins, and Grains
In addition to fruits and vegetables, there are other food groups your family needs in order to stay healthy.
- Dairy foods.They’re an excellent source of bone-building calcium, vitamin D and protein, but go for the low-fat or fat-free versions of milk, yogurt, and cheese. If you don’t like dairy products, you can also find calcium in dark-green leafy vegetables such as spinach, fish such as salmon, and almond milk. Also look for calcium-fortified breads and cereals.
- Whole grains.At least half the grains that you and your family consume should be whole grains. When buying wheat, rice, oats, or corn, look at the ingredients label to be sure it says “whole grain.”
- Lean proteins.Children up to the age of 5 need only two portions of protein in their daily diets. As they get older, their protein requirements increase. You’ll find protein not only in meat, poultry, and fish, but also in eggs, milk, cheese, nuts, and beans. An 8-ounce cup of yogurt has 11 grams of protein, and popular Greek styles have slightly more. When choosing meat, go for lean cuts like skinless poultry breast, beef eye round or pork tenderloin.
- Healthy fats.Plant-based fats such as olive or canola oil are the healthiest. Butter and other animal fats tend to raise cholesterol levels, increasing the risk for heart disease.
Know Your Limits: Sugar and Salt
Children should consume no more than 3 teaspoons of sugar a day (12 grams), according to the American Heart Association. It’s natural to cut back your children’s intake of candy, cookies, and ice cream. But hidden sugars are found in a lot of the everyday foods we eat, including bread, soups, condiments, and fast food.
In most recipes, you can decrease the amount of sugar by up to a third without affecting the taste. You also can add fresh fruit in place of some of the sugar.
Adults also need to watch their sugar intake, as overindulging can result in weight gain and complications if you have diabetes.
Here’s how to watch your family’s sugar intake:
- Cut out soda and sweetened beverages.One 12-ounce can of soda can contain up to 10 teaspoons of sugar, which is three times the amount a child should have in an entire day. Substitute sparkling water with a splash of fruit juice for flavor.
- Limit processed and fast foods.Store-bought cakes and cookies can be loaded with sugar, not to mention unhealthy trans fats. If you can, bake your own and adapt recipes to use less sugar. In most recipes, you can decrease the amount of sugar by up to a third without affecting the taste. You also can add fresh fruit in place of some of the sugar. Know that it’s okay to have French fries once in a while — they're often a favorite food for children — just don’t make them a part of your everyday meal plan.
- Make your own frozen treats.Make popsicles from 100 percent fruit juice. Freeze fruits such as grapes, berries, and bananas and use them as a topping for low-fat vanilla ice cream.
Children and adults also need to watch their salt intake as too much salt in your diet can lead to high blood pressure and increase heart disease risk. The Children’s Nutrition Research Center recommends that children between the ages of 2 and 3 limit their sodium intake to between 1,000 and 1,500 milligrams (mg). The recommendations for children between the ages of 4 and 8 are 1,200 to 1,900 mg; for children 9 to 13 years old, 1,500 to 2,200 mg; and for 14- to 18-year-olds, 1,500 to 2,300 mg.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture says that adults should have no more than 2,300 mg of sodium in their diets.
To limit salt intake, adults can make the following dietary choices:
- Add fresh herbs when you cook and season foods.Your taste buds get less sensitive as you get older, so increased flavor is important. Fresh herbs and lemon juice are great salt substitutes.
- Choose frozen over canned.Frozen vegetables usually contain less salt than canned, but check the packaging to be sure.
The Transition to Better Nutrition for the Family
Here are other steps you can take to help your family eat healthily:
- Eat together.With everyone’s busy schedule, it can be hard to have dinner on the table at the same time every night. But try to have dinner as a family as often as possible. Scheduling it for the same time every night can make it easier for each family member to plan around it. When families eat together, mom, dad, and kids make healthier meal choices and develop healthier eating habits that they keep when eating away from home.
- Cook more often.When you do the cooking, you control how much fat, salt, and other ingredients go into your family’s meals. Prepare your kids' favorite foods, but make healthier versions — for example, use low-fat cheese and whole-wheat crust to make your own pizza.
- Get everyone involved in meal planning.Take turns picking menus and preparing foods. Even young children can help. The more involved everyone is, the more they’ll want to eat what’s on the menu for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
- Stock the pantry with healthy snacks.Fill your shelves with healthy snack options, such as hot-air popcorn and unsalted pretzels. If you must have potato chips in the house for special occasions, keep them toward the back so they’re harder to see. Cut up fresh fruits and vegetables and keep them in the fridge so that they’re easily accessible when you and your kids reach for a snack.
- Make changes gradually.Take a gradual approach to improving your family’s nutritional profile. Don’t just decide to throw away all the junk food in your cupboards and refrigerator, Crandall says. “It’s better to make changes slowly,” she explains. Your family will adapt more easily to gradual healthy changes made over time.
- Watch your portions.It’s okay to eat your favorites once in a while, Crandall says. If you eliminate your guilty pleasures, such as chocolate or French fries, entirely, you’ll only crave them more. Instead, restrict them to special occasions and control your portions. If you overeat at dinner, start over the next day. Don’t give up on healthy eating just because you fell off the wagon once or twice.
A Lifetime of Healthy Eating
Children learn their eating habits early. If you can instill healthy-eating habits in them when they’re young, they’ll be more likely to carry these habits into adulthood, Crandall says. But it’s important to avoid being too pushy when it comes to your children’s diet, she warns.
Video: Healthy Cooking for Families: Advice from Kaiser Permanente Dietitian Nora Norback
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