Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Improving your family's diet

One of the concerns on probably every mother's mind is making sure that her children eat healthy, nutritious food. But time constraints, cost, and picky eaters often get in the way of good intentions.

Here, I would like to share some of the changes I have made in our family's diet over the years in order to get everyone to eat healthier.

1. Read EVERY food label

This is probably the most important point. I literally read every food label before I buy a product, unless it's something I buy all the time and know to be "safe".

If a food contains any of the following, it will never make it into my cart:

- preservatives (about 90% of ready cereals on the shelf)
- hydrogenated fats
- high fructose corn syrup
- artificial colors and/or flavors

I also don't buy anything that has an extremely long ingredient list, even if none of them is "that bad". And I never buy anything that has ingredients coming from China.

Many of these items can be bought in an all-natural alternative if you check the shelf carefully. For example, all main-brand ready taco shells at my local grocery store either contain preservatives or use hydrogenated oil. The store brand ones contain only corn, corn oil, and salt. Not only are they cheaper, but they also taste better and are healthier.

If you can't find a healthy alternative at the grocery store, try a health food store instead. You will be surprised to find that the prices are not much different. For example, Hormel pepperoni at the store costs about $3 for a small package, but it contains preservatives. At my local health food store, the butcher makes his own all natural pepperoni without preservatives, nitrites, etc. It only keeps for a few days, but the same batch costs only about $1.50 and is enough to make two very large pizzas.

When you are first getting started you will need to invest some time into comparing prices and ingredients, but you will be a "pro" in no time. I know exactly what to get at which store now.

2. Try to include organic

Many people have the idea that if you can't buy all your food in organic, it's not worth buying any organic at all. Rather, you should go easy on your food budget and over time try to replace more and more conventional foods with organic. Of course, there will be times when the family's finances are tough and you may not be able to buy any organic, but you should not have an all-or-nothing attitude.

If you look around health food stores in your area, you may find that the organic produce on sale is actually cheaper than conventionally grown produce at the grocery store. You could also look into joining a food co-op in your area. Most health food stores also have bulk foods that cost less than the pre-packaged conventional alternative (e.g. quick oats, flours, raw sugar, dry beans, etc.).

The most expensive organic items are dairy and meats, so you may prefer to save money by cutting back on how much of these you eat. Personally, I buy all my meat at Sam's Club because the quality is excellent, the meat is all from the US (unlike Wal-Mart, who gets their meat from China), and the prices are great. I would eventually like to switch to organic meat, but for now this will have to do. Sam's Club and Costco also sell milk that is from cows not treated with growth hormones. Again, not organic, but better than what you get at the store for that price.

3. Serve 7 - 9 servings of fruits and vegetables per day

Conventional or organic, you should include lots of produce in your family's diet. In our family, the rule is to have one fruit and one vegetable with every meal. That's in addition to any vegetables that the dish may already contain.

I have found that divided trays with 3 or 4 compartments are a tremendous help to stick with this goal. You just don't feel right setting a tray in front of the kids that only has something in one of the four compartments. It is important to remember never to reheat food on plastic trays in the microwave, since this can break the plastic down and contaminate the food.

These extra servings of fruits and vegetables do not have to be another side dish that you have to cook. There are many quick fixes, such as: unsweetened apple sauce, sliced apples or pears, tangerine or orange slices, diced pineapple, strawberries, diced melon, baby carrots, radishes, cherry tomatoes, sliced bell pepper, etc.

Juice is not a good alternative to real fruit, and should not be viewed as such. One cup per day is plenty.

When your kids ask for a snack between meal time, offer them fruits. They may really enjoy dried fruit such as raisins, dried cherries, and banana chips.

4. Start early

This is another very important point. It is much easier to teach your child right habits from the start then to try and "deprive" them of all the junk once they are older.

Our kids have never had conventional cereals, except for when we go on vacation and I let them eat that stuff at the hotel for an event. To this day, they think that everyone eats plain Cheerios, hot cereal (cooked with milk instead of water), or something home cooked for breakfast. They don't feel deprived at all, in fact, they love those foods.

At meal time, I have to force the kids to eat some of the main course rather than just their fruits and vegetables. This would probably make every vegetarian's stomach turn, but my kids are all so skinny and I have to make sure they get some "real" substance.

Don't worry too much if your baby hates the jars of baby food. They ARE pretty disgusting. Rather, introduce him/her to soft, mashed fruits and vegetables from the table, such as bananas, avocado, pureed fruit, small pieces of melon, steamed carrots, mashed peas, etc.

If you have older kids and their palates are used to the junk, try replacing it over time with all-natural versions of the stuff they crave, while working on cutting some of it out.

5. Eliminate junk food out of your house

You could ease "food wars" with your children by not buying certain items in the first place, such as snack cakes, any ready bakery items such as cinnamon rolls, cookies, etc., ready cookies such as Oreos, Keebler, etc., any kind of soda - the list is endless (see point 1 above). If whining and begging at the store is an issue, you need to get to the root of it, which is a lack of discipline. Or you could leave them at home while you shop.

Instead of buying this stuff, you could make most of it yourself at home.


- Instead of soda, try mixing equal parts of juice with carbonated water or unsweetened fruit or herb tea. My favorites are apple cherry juice with carbonated water, and apple juice with peppermint tea on ice.

- If you prefer the taste of pancake syrup to that of maple syrup (as I do), make your own at home from simple recipes that can be found on the internet. Tastes better, and has no preservatives or high fructose corn syrup in it.

- All desserts should be baked at home since there are almost none that can be considered healthy (Whole Foods carries some, but the prices are astronomical). If you must use white flour, you can at least switch to unbleached white flour. Personally, I love using whole wheat pastry flour, which (unlike regular whole wheat flour) is made from soft wheat and ground much finer. Your cakes and pastries will turn out light and fluffy and not have the overly nutty flavor that many whole wheat products have. If you have the money, you could invest in a high-end grain mill, such as the Nutrimill. After 8 years of marriage, I am still dreaming of that one.

6. Switch to whole grains

As I already mentioned above, you can make this switch pretty painless by using whole wheat pastry flour in all your baked goods. Baking your own bread is an excellent and healthy hobby, and your family will love you for it. It also saves a lot of money since a ready-bought healthy loaf costs about $3-4.

Replacing pasta and rice is pretty easy with the wide selection of products at the store. I like to use quick-cooking rice because regular brown rice takes about an hour or more to cook. If your family doesn't like the taste of a particular brand of whole wheat pasta, try a different brand until you find one they like.

Crackers and such can be found in whole grain alternatives at the health food store, often for about the same price.

If you live in a hot and/or humid climate, you should store your bread products and flours in the fridge to keep the bugs out of them.

7. Offer only healthy drinks

I serve the kids milk with every meal. If they get the milk at breakfast in their cereal, they can have one cup of juice. Between meals they can only drink water. Getting enough water is an important habit that you should teach your children now. We literally never buy soda (unless someone is sick and needs Sprite). If we go out to eat and the kids are mellow, I let them have one cup of soda, after which they can only get refills of water. If they are already wild, or it is close to bedtime, the last think I would dream about giving them is more sugar.

The only exception to this is some healthy soda from the health food store. Most of the stuff even from there is just a bunch of sugar water, but there are a couple of brands that are sweetened with only a little cane juice and made all naturally. Consequently, this is a very rare treat because a 4-pack sells for $4-6.

8. Cook from scratch

It saves money, it tastes better, and it's healthier. It's a way to show your family that they are worth your time and effort. It shows your love. "The way to a man's heart is through his stomach" is still true today. Do you want him to be in love with Stouffers, Banquet, Hungry Man, Chef Bonyarde, Ramen, or you?

9. Make changes gradually

Finally, don't overwhelm yourself or your family by going all natural overnight. Start with changes that seem the easiest, and add new changes over time. You don't have to tell anyone that the pasta in the dinner is actually whole wheat, or that you used a different flour to make the cake. Give their palates a chance to get adjusted.

At the same time, you ARE the parent and shouldn't tolerate a bratty or unthankful attitude toward wholesome food. If my kids ever complain about the food, I tell them that they may go out to the back alley and eat whatever they can find in the garbage can, just like many other children the world over have to. It gets them to stop griping really fast.

Over time, you will notice that you no longer want to drive through somewhere for lunch. Personally, I have not had any fast food whatsoever in years. In fact, you may find that you get sick to your stomach after eating there because you are used to eating better.

So do yourself and your family a favor, and start improving everyone's diet TODAY.


  1. Excellent post. A couple of thoughts/questions to add to the mix...

    How are you able to avoid all high fructose corn syrup? It seems like everything in the store has that somewhere in the ingredients list. We try to avoid it, but sometimes it just doesn't seem possible.

    A chiropractor friend told me once that when it comes to organic, it's more benefitial to buy certain things (for example, maybe organic oranges and regular bananas instead of regular oranges and organic bananas) if price becomes an issue. It has to do with the amount of vitamins/minerals the regular fruit loses. I'll send him an email and try to get more info from him on it. I'll follow up again when I get a reply from him.

    Beware of too much fruit. Having too much can raise your triglyceride levels. An extra orange is a better choice than a Snickers bar, but don't eat a bag of oranges each day. :)

    Starting early works wonders. My 4 year old boy LOVES raw spinach leaves.

    Whole grains are great, but if you use whole grain pasta for spaghetti, it can take some practice. They cook differently than the enriched ("regular") noodles.

    And you didn't mention it, but if you want to keep toward the healthy side of life, you should probably avoid beer and alchohol. The calories there are many, and the nutritional benefit is just not there. (I'm guessing, based on what I've seen from your husband's preaching online, that this isn't an issue in your house, but I figured I'd mention it in case anybody else comes around and sees this post.)

    Again, excellent post. I feel naughty for that drive-through chicken biscuit I had for breakfast. :)

  2. Speaking of artificial flavors and colors, Red Dye #40 is especially bad. I recently read that it's illegal in Europe and causes hyperactivity and lots of worse side effects.


  3. My kids never knew anything but healthy eating and I can say it's great when they get older because you don't struggle with getting them to eat their veggies and such. My boys do real well in this area and hardly eat any junk food.

    I also frequent Trader Joes which always have healthy treats for the kids.

    God Bless,



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