“Clean your plate!” is something that you probably hear yourself say regularly, especially when it comes to unpopular foods like spinach, cooked carrots and peas, or any vegetable that isn’t buried under a layer of cheese sauce. You may find yourself adding that extra cheese just so that your kids will eat their dinner, and for the kids, that’s not so bad. Growing children need extra fat and protein in their diets – but you don’t.
Worse, a lot of parents choose to avoid the picky-eater argument by buying things they know their kids will eat: chicken nuggets, frozen pizza, boxes of mac ‘n’ cheese. Again, for kids that’s not such a bad thing, as long as they’re also getting some vegetables and fruit that have the vitamins and minerals they need to develop healthy bodies. Your body is already fully developed, and the additional fat and calories in most pre-packaged food won’t do anything but develop it in the wrong direction, by making you gain weight.
If you’re worried that your children aren’t getting the nutrition they need, you can ask your pediatrician for information on healthy diets. A doctor usually has brochures or other handouts ready for parents, and they can also direct you to useful websites or to community health centers that offer free classes and cooking tips. Here’s a quick overview of your family’s nutritional needs:
|toddlers to age 3||2 – 3 cups||2 cups||2 – 4 ounces||3 – 4 ounces|
|children 4 to 8||4 – 5 cups||2 – 3 cups||3 – 5 ounces||4 – 6 ounces|
|pre-teens 9 to 13||5 – 6 cups||3 cups||4 – 6 ounces||6 – 9 ounces|
|teens 14 to 18||5 – 6 cups||3 cups||5 – 7 ounces||7 – 10 ounces|
You can get more complete nutritional information, as well as a lot of useful information and advice, at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s nutrition website here. (http://www.choosemyplate.gov/)
So how do you create meals for your family that don’t make it hard for you to stick to your diet?
1. Just Say No
As an adult, you need less food than your always-hungry teenager does. For example, you only need 4 or 5 ounces of protein, instead of the 5 to 7 that your teenager can use to fuel their growing body. It’s just something to keep in mind when you’re dividing up the food on the plates for dinner; simply eating less of what the rest of the family is eating can be the easiest way to watch your calories.
2. Help Kids Say Yes
One of the reasons that children sometimes turn into picky eaters is that they don’t know what they’re eating. There’s a reason for the phrase “comfort food.” It means something that you like, that you’re familiar with, and that’s easy to eat. Getting your kids involved in meal preparation, and not just eating the meal, will teach them about the food they’re eating. It will also teach them some basic cooking skills, and that’s something they’ll find useful when they’re out on their own in college. In fact, one or more of your kids might find that they like cooking so much that they’re willing to take over that chore for you. Wouldn’t it be great to come home after work to a meal that your teenager has cooked? Now, if you could just get them to be that happy doing the dishes …
3. Avoid Fast Food
It’s such a temptation for the busy mom: pick up a bucket of chicken or a bag of burgers on the way home from work, and there won’t be dishes to clean or kids complaining about the food. Unfortunately, this strategy comes with a price, and it’s not just the price of the food itself. Many fast food meals contain things like wheat gluten and soy protein, which are cheaper than real meat. The cheese on your pizza might be half soy protein or contain starch or other “filler” ingredients that help the company save money. While you might be saving money too, you’re also going to be feeding your family with a lot of extra fat, carbohydrates, salt, and sugar that they don’t need.
Did you know that a typical fast-food burger contains over 25% of your daily allowance for saturated fat? A slice of pepperoni pizza does too, as well as 25% of your salt (sodium) intake for the day. And while you’ll get a healthy dose of protein with your fried chicken, you’ll also get a not-so-healthy dose of cholesterol, something that’s not good for you or your kids.
4. Snack Healthy
Here’s where you need to head to the bulk section of your local big-box grocery store. It’s the cheapest way to buy things that you and your kids will love to eat, without all the added salt and fat found in most other snack foods. You can eat many of the same things as your kids do, or tweak the ingredients to reduce the fat and calories for yourself. Here are some ideas:
- Buy whole nuts from the bulk bins, like almonds and walnuts. Peanuts are also good, but buy those roasted in the shell. Look for unroasted and unsalted shelled nuts, because otherwise you’ll still get a lot of fat from the oil the nuts are roasted in. Pistachios, Brazil nuts, and cashews are more expensive, but a nice treat. Remember that even unroasted nuts are high in natural fat – a small handful of nuts makes a good portion.
- Stock up on good peanut butter for your kids. They’ll get the protein they need when they spread it on a piece of bread (whole wheat bread, right?) or on a few slices of apple. Since it’s made from nuts, it’s high in fat, but it’s the good monounsaturated kind. Still, you only need a tablespoon or two to get the benefits of the fiber and protein. Try making “ants on a log” for your child’s snack: take a stick of celery, spread a spoonful of peanut butter in the hollow, and press a dozen raisins into the peanut butter in a line, like ants crawling.
- Instead of buying premade trail mix (which often has a lot of salty and sugary stuff in it) you can make your own trail mix from the bulk bins. Buy unroasted and/or unsalted nuts, add some raisins, get a scoop of unsweetened coconut flakes, and shake it all together in a bag. If banana chips – sliced dried bananas – are on sale, toss some of those in as well, but not many; they’re usually made with added oil and sugar.
- Unsweetened cereal makes a great snack mix, and it’s cheaper than buying it in the box. Get equal amounts of corn and rice cereal squares, then mix them with a little bit of oil and some seasonings. Spread the cereal mix on a baking tray and bake it for 30 minutes at 300F, stirring twice. Let it cool and eat it up!
5. Go Greek
The “Mediterranean diet” – oily fish, olive oil, dark leafy vegetables, walnuts, fruit, and whole grains – has been in the news for a long time, and there’s a good reason for that. There are a lot of nutritional benefits in eating food like sardines and mackerel, kale and spinach, wheat berries and rice. These high-protein foods are also often very low in calories. Unfortunately, following this diet plan is not always a practical choice for a busy mother, and some of the foods aren’t ones that kids will be attracted to right away. However, you can add some of these items to your diet in a way that your kids will enjoy.
- Buy canned sardines and turn them into a sandwich spread. If you put enough mayonnaise and mustard into it, you’ll hide any fishy taste. Just remember to hide the cans before you serve the sandwiches! You can eat the drained sardines yourself as part of a salad with a light dressing, and avoid the calories in the mayonnaise. Be sure to drain the oil from the sardines before using them.
- Leafy green vegetables often have a strong flavor or smell, which is one reason kids avoid them. For instance, cabbage smells like sulfur when it’s cooked. But if you shred the cabbage and mix it with a dressing made of mayonnaise, vinegar, salt, and a pinch of sugar, you’ve got coleslaw – and that’s something kids generally like a lot. Add a few shredded carrots for extra color and crunch. Make a batch for yourself without the mayonnaise.
- Add frozen spinach to things like chili and meat loaf where the other dark colors will hide it. Your kids will get the extra nutrition without even noticing. Save some spinach for your dinner and only take half a slice of meat loaf or half a bowl of chili.
- Buying whole wheat bread is a good idea for both you and your kids. You can also go back to the bulk bins for wheat berries, brown rice, and other whole grains. While these will take longer to cook than instant rice or ready-to-eat wheat cereal, they also have all of the fiber, vitamins, and minerals your family You can cook a big pot of grains on the weekend and then use it over the next week for meals. For some good recipe ideas using whole grains, check out this website. (http://www.cookinglight.com/healthy-living/healthy-habits/whole-grain-recipes)
6. “V” for Vegetables
Whether they’re fresh, frozen, or canned, vegetables are an important part of your family’s diet. Many people think that only fresh vegetables are good for you, but sometimes frozen vegetables have more vitamins and minerals than fresh ones. That’s because something that has been grown, stored, shipped, and then put out in a produce bin at your grocery store for two weeks has been losing nutrition since it was harvested. By contrast, many frozen vegetables are flash-frozen shortly after they’re picked, which helps keep all of the nutrients intact. If you have room in your freezer, you can stock up on frozen vegetables when they’re on sale.
The “cover it in cheese” strategy works very well with frozen vegetables, but be sure to keep out a portion for yourself to eat plain.
7. Eat Raw Foods
Children can learn to like healthy snacks like apples and oranges, or carrot and celery sticks. You can take those snacks and turn them into your meal. Most adults don’t get enough fruits and vegetables, and since these foods are often more nutritious when they’re uncooked, adults are also losing essential vitamins and minerals. Your kids might not eat cauliflower or broccoli unless it’s cooked and blanketed in a creamy cheese sauce, but you can eat them raw for the best results. Grate the cauliflower and/or broccoli and mix with grated carrots, a few whole nuts, and a low-fat dressing. Top your healthy salad with a spoonful of shredded cheese you’ve set aside while making your kids’ meal, and then toast a slice of whole wheat bread to make croutons. You’ll have a filling meal that will help you lose weight. And if you show how much you’re enjoying your meal, maybe your kids will ask for a taste – and maybe they’ll learn to like raw broccoli, too!