You want your family to start eating together and eating healthier, but where to begin? Making lots of changes too quickly could lead to a rebellion in your household. Improvement is possible, but it would be foolish to think any kid is going to be happy going from fast food dinners to baked chicken with vegetables overnight. By making small adjustments to the family diet, you can gradually introduce healthy habits without being overwhelming, which makes them more likely to stick long term. When you make changes as a family, you develop a system of support so that everyone is working toward common goals. To get started without any—or at least without much—fuss, start with these seven ideas.
Switch to leaner cuts of meat.
Fattier meat tends to be more tender and less expensive, which is why it’s a common choice. By making changes to what meat you buy and how it’s prepared, you can save fat and calories without sacrificing taste. For example, when cooking ground meat, brown it, place in a colander, then drain and rinse. Consider using ground turkey instead of beef for dishes with strong flavors (think meat sauce or chili) where the swap is less likely to be noticed. If your family frequently eats red meat, try substituting one of those dinners each week for a chicken dish instead.
Add puréed vegetables to sauces and casseroles.
Puréed vegetables can boost the nutrition of a dish without making a significant change to the flavor. They can even be used in place of cream or milk to thicken a sauce—and reduce calories!—or as an easy way to add extra veggies without complaint. Experiment with the concept by including puréed carrots or zucchini to pasta sauce, beans to chili, or cooked broccoli to a cheesy chicken casserole.
Skip the box and make from scratch.
Have you ever looked at the ingredients on the side of a box of flavored rice or a bag of frozen french fries? Chances are you will find a number of ingredients you can’t pronounce. The good news: It’s cheaper, healthier and easier than you think to make some of these items from scratch without sacrificing an ounce of flavor. Slice and bake seasoned potatoes, or create your own rice dish that’s bursting with flavor. This doesn’t have to be something you do every night, but swapping out the boxed version for homemade even a few times a week will be a healthy improvement to family meals.
Drink more water.
If juice and soda are the drinks of choice in your home, slowly start cutting back by replacing them with water. Ease into the transition by serving water for one meal or snack daily. Buy fun cups or water bottles to get kids excited about drinking their water and consider flavoring plain water with fruit to make it more palatable. The more water they drink, the more they will crave it and start leaving the sugary drinks behind.
Pick one new food to try each week.
Think of meal time as a family adventure! Take a trip to the grocery store together and explore the perimeter, which is where you can find most of the fresh and healthier products. It is easy to start a recipe brainstorming session with fruits and vegetables. Grab something home that looks interesting, then search for a recipe that features this ingredient together. Browsing for recipes as a family makes the process fun, plus you never know what kind of new food you’ll find that the whole family can enjoy.
Plan meals as a family.
When family members have a say in the meal-planning process, they are much more likely to accept change. Ask your spouse to choose a dish he or she really loves, then put a healthier spin on it. For example, try baking instead of frying the chicken parmesan, or add extra veggies instead of a big side of spaghetti. Make a deal with your kids: They can choose the main dish if they agree to eat the vegetable you choose as a side. That could mean you end up making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with asparagus, but that is all part of the fun. Although it might sound a little unusual, this trick helps make food decisions a democracy rather than a dictatorship.
Slowly introduce whole grains.
Whole grains pack a nutritional punch that you won’t find in refined products like white rice and white flour. If you’ve never served whole-wheat spaghetti or a sandwich made on whole-wheat bread, it could be a tough sell. Instead of making an immediate switch, start slow. Try making a pasta dish that is a mix of whole wheat and regular, use brown rice in a casserole where it is less likely to be noticed, or experiment with a mix of white and whole-wheat flour in your banana bread recipe. Your family will slowly adapt to the new taste, and eventually you can transition completely to the whole-grain products without protest.
Keep in mind that you won’t please everyone all the time. Some changes will be accepted by most, while other changes will be resisted by all. Try to focus on the bigger picture of the health of your family, and don’t give up! Eventually, people get used to change and the resistance subsides. You just need the determination to stick with it, continuing to make small changes until the food served in your home is healthy the quality you deserve.
Looking for even more ideas? Check out SparkPeople’s four-week Healthy Family Makeover Challenge, designed to get your household on the right track to eating better, becoming more active, and spending more quality time together.
Photo credit: SparkPeople