Trying to eat healthier can be a difficult task when your significant other or family members aren’t totally on board with you, especially when you’re mostly in charge of making sure everyone gets fed. It can be easy to crumble and give in to what’s the easiest, fastest, or cheapest and makes everyone happy, which may derail your resolution to eat healthier as a family.
That’s why we spoke with Denice Taylor, a registered dietitian nutritionist on the staff at Texas Health Arlington, to provide some helpful and realistic tips for getting the whole family on board with healthier meals.
Start Small and Stay Positive
Getting the whole family behind a healthier eating initiative is no small task, which is why Taylor says starting small can make your goal more attainable and less stress-inducing. Additionally, she says letting go of perfection will give you a good foundation to keep pushing forward, even if there are some slight hiccups along the way.
“Keep a healthy, positive mindset that good nutrition can have a positive effect on your health and mood,” she explains. “If we know we’ll get something out of this, we are more likely to follow through on healthier eating and portion control. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle takes time, so coach yourself to be patient, but also be persistent!”
Even if you’re the main chef in your home, you can still get the family involved in meals in one way or another, and a great way to get them involved from the very beginning is to sit down and plan your meals for the next week. Having a say in what the family eats, as well as taking out the guessing game of what the menu will look like each day, can help even the most selective eaters get on board with new foods or meals they’re not used to.
And if you think meal planning sounds like more work than it’s worth, Taylor adds that planning out your meals ahead of time can actually reduce the stress of heading into the grocery store without a list of exactly what you need, which can have you scrambling later on during the week when you’re trying to cobble together a homecooked meal with what you have in the pantry.
But deciding on which recipes to make can be tricky, especially if you’re trying to adapt a not-so-healthy recipe into a healthier version or know there are going to be some members of the family who just won’t eat something. So for starters, stick with simple meals, especially during the week where you may be strapped for cooking time.
One way to streamline the process is by taking a look at what you already have in the freezer or pantry. You can then base meals off of what’s on hand. There are plenty of resources that can take ingredients you have on hand then find recipes based on what you have, to help make meal planning easier.
MyFridgeFood has a simple list of common pantry items and generates tons of recipes for you to gather inspiration from, even allowing you to narrow it down by meal type or diet, and each recipe comes with nutrition info and any missing ingredients you may need to grab to complete the recipe.
While Super Cook has its limitations when it comes to some common food items, the number of recipes it generates can’t be beaten. It also allows you to narrow down recipes by meal type, diet and even how long it will take to complete.
As for those selective eaters, opt for meals that can be “deconstructed” and everyone can personalize what exactly goes on their plate. For instance, if you decide to have a taco night with ground turkey, chicken or a plant-based protein, separate out toppings so everyone can pick and choose what they’d like to add, and how much they’d like to eat. You can still encourage members to try a small amount of a new food or veggies, but it still allows everyone to get on board in a way they feel comfortable with.
Make Meal Prep a Priority
So you’ve planned out your meals for the week and you’ve gathered up all of your ingredients — what now? If you know you’ll be strapped for time during the week, or just know temptation may arise when it’s after work and you don’t have the energy to cook, prepping your meals ahead of time can be a real game-changer.
This can look like preparing common ingredients or sides beforehand, such as chopping up some onion if many of your dishes call for it, or steaming some rice and veggies so you can focus on just cooking the main dish during the week. Or you can go all-in and prepare entire meals ahead of time, where all you have to do is reheat and eat during the week. Whichever option you choose, be realistic with yourself and your family when it comes to time and preference. If you’re not a fan of leftovers, then making a few days of meals ahead of time may not suit you.
And if you’re thinking about the time commitment, remember, you don’t have to do it all by yourself and there are a few nutritionist-approved time-savers you can lean on. Try splitting up meal prep responsibilities among family members, which as we mentioned earlier, can get everyone excited about mealtime. And don’t discount healthy meal prep shortcuts, such as precut fresh or frozen veggies, microwavable whole grain, or pre-cooked proteins such as rotisserie chicken.
Believe it or not, research shows that families that eat at least three times a week together, without any distractions such as the TV, tablets or cellphones, are happier and healthier, says Taylor. Eating together as a family can promote bonding, aid in social and emotional development, and encourage healthier eating habits, especially if modeled by parents or older siblings. In fact, studies show that kids of families that eat together tend to eat less fast food and more fruits and vegetables.
“Studies show that the consumption of protein, calcium, vegetables, and fruits can improve when encouraged by family members,” Taylor adds. “So parents and older siblings can serve as a role model for good nutrition!”
Speaking of parents, there are benefits for you too. One study found that parents who participate in family dinners have higher levels of self-esteem and lower rates of depression and stress.
While Taylor notes it may not be realistic for everyone to eat together every night, try to make family dinners a priority as often as you can and with as many members of the family as possible.
Here are some tips to encourage a distraction-free meal:
- Make the dinner table a no-phone zone.
- Engage in conversation around the table by asking fun, thought-provoking questions. For example, if you could have any kind of animal for a pet, what would it be and why? You can also take turns, having each family member come up with a question.
- Give each family member a task, such as helping with cooking, setting the table, or doing dishes.
Try Not to Entice Healthier Habits with Dessert
Last but not least, we know you’re wondering about dessert. It’s not uncommon to promise a sweet treat in exchange for a child eating something they don’t want to eat. In fact, it may have even worked on you when you were a kiddo, so it may be tempting to do so with your own kids, but Taylor says using dessert as a reward can have the opposite effect.
“It’s best not to use food or sweets as a reward as this type of behavior becomes learned and expected, and once that happens, it is difficult to change,” she explains. “Instead, try using non-food-related rewards, such as allowing children time to do things with family members that they want to do, such as playing a game.”
While getting the whole family on board with a healthier food resolution may come with its ups and downs, and hiccups along the way, the work you put in now can impact you and your family’s health well into the future, as well as opening up opportunities to bond with each other.