You have heard the benefits of healthy eating, however incorporating healthy eating habits isn’t necessarily easy. So, what can you do to help your family choose more nutritious options? Here are suggestions on how you can make healthy eating a habit. Plus, check out some tips on how to make it fun for preschoolers, grade-school kids, and teens.
Adopt the Healthy Eating Mindset
We all know that it's not easy to change. "Any type of lifestyle change can be a challenge," says Shelly Hoefs, a certified health behavior coach at Sanford Health's Mutch Women's Center for Health Enrichment, Sioux Falls, S.D.
That's true no matter what unhealthy habit you are trying to shed. "Once you've accepted that it's hard, move on and make the changes anyway," Hoefs tells parents. "At first, change will feel very uncomfortable," Hoefs says. So take baby steps. For instance, if you're trying to cut down on soda and drink more milk, substitute milk once a day for soda at first. ''With the first glass of milk, you're thinking, 'I want the soda,'" she says. "But pretty soon, it becomes, 'This is what I drink at this time of day -- milk.'"
Hoefs recommends thinking of healthy eating as a work in progress. For example: "We used to eat chips and go to fast food restaurants. Now we eat pretzels and eat at home more often."
Overcome the Obstacles
If you're like most parents, a hectic schedule may pose one of the biggest challenges to having your family eat healthy. "Time is the biggest struggle," says Teresa Beach, RD, Director of Nutrition and Food Services at Sanford Medical Center in Sioux Falls, SD. Parents often think that healthy food can't be "on-the-go" food, she says. But that's not true. For example, Beach suggests keeping a snack bin in the car. "Fill it with nonperishable healthy foods, such as whole-grain pretzels, raisins, and fruit cups. It will help you avoid hitting the fast food drive-through when you pick up hungry kids after school or athletic practice”, she says. A healthy dinner doesn't always have to be hot or home-cooked, Beach says, although parents tend to think so. She offers this hectic-night dinner menu:
- Whole-grain crackers
- String cheese
- Apple slices
- Low-fat yogurt
- Baby carrots
"You may think, 'That's not a meal, it's just a bunch of snack foods,'" says Beach. But that dinner includes crucial protein, calcium, fruit, and a vegetable, along with whole grains. Best of all, if you have the foods on hand, it takes less than five minutes to assemble.
Plan for a Healthy Diet
The decision to eat healthier must involve the whole family. And that means that you, as a parent, have to commit to new eating habits, too, Hoefs says. "Your family healthy eating plan should include specifics on what you want to do -- such as eat more fruit and fewer fries -- and how you will track your progress and reward it," Hoefs says.
Keeping a chart and checking off the action -- such as "I ate fruit today" -- works well, even with adults. Simply seeing the check mark reinforces that you followed through. Depending on your family's preference, you can make the healthy eating transition competitive or cooperative. Either way, Hoefs says, "Focus on the upsides of why you are making these changes." For example, point out to your teen that he is not feeling a ''sugar crash" after drinking milk rather than soda.
What to Eat? Make It Fun!
Healthy eating doesn't have to be boring. The trick is to make it fun and interesting -- and age-appropriate.
- Preschoolers: Make sandwiches interesting. "Cut whole wheat bread into a star or heart before filling it with turkey or cheese," Beach says. "Get a big whole wheat pretzel and wrap your turkey around that. It's the same as a sandwich, but looks more fun."
- Elementary or middle-schoolers: Children this age can help plan a menu for the week, accompany you to the store, or help prepare a meal. Involve your kids when you can so they get an idea of what eating healthy really is as a big picture. By taking them to the store or farmers' market, or letting them choose what the family will eat, they not only feel like they play an important part of the family but they also learn important habits they will carry into adulthood.
- Teens: Focus on how healthy choices will make them perform better at extracurricular activities, such as athletics, a musical production, or math club. Focus on what healthy food does for your body instead of how different foods make you look. Talk about healthy options in a way that makes them relevant to helping your teen today rather than following nutrition rule for some far-off goal.