In a perfect world, we would all have the time, money and expertise to prepare healthy, delicious meals every day that our entire family would happily devour (no picky eaters here!). Come 5pm, you would never be arriving home exhausted and scrambling to figure out dinner, or picking up the phone to order pizza, because you would have pre-planned your meals, pre-cut your vegetables and had dinner on the table within the hour, ready for the whole clan to gather around and enjoy together. Your kids would snack on a variety of nourishing, organic foods and drink plenty of water. School lunches would reflect the same healthy standard and all your family, friends and neighbors would be equally committed to providing your child a nourishing diet. At recess and after school, your children would be playing outside getting plenty of exercise and fresh air. Childhood obesity would be an oxymoron.
But since we live in the real world, in modern times, let’s get real. The reality is that raising healthy kids is an ongoing challenge for every parent. Many households have a single parent or two parents with full time jobs. Often, the kids have afterschool activities and homework. In short, life is busy! This makes it especially difficult to find time for food shopping and preparation, not to mention time to eat together as a family and squeeze in some exercise too.
Back-to-school season can be an especially busy time. We want to help by providing some practical tips to support you in your journey toward healthier habits for yourself and your children.
- Plan ahead. Meal planning, and grocery shopping based on your meal plan, can go a long way in improving diet, reducing meal-time stress and saving money. If meal planning is new to you, it may be daunting at first but sticking with it will pay off very quickly. Try to set aside about 30 minutes at first, once a week, to focus on planning your meals for the week. List out all ingredients needed for each meal and add these to a grocery list. Use the following meal planning tips to get started:
- Look at your schedule: Meal planning will only be successful if the meals you plan are appropriate for what’s happening in your home on any given night. On your busiest days, plan for simple meals or slow-cooker meals. Take note of any events to work around, who will be home for dinner, and any additional guests that may be joining you.
- Use familiar recipes: It’s helpful to start by jotting down an open-ended list of things you already cook and eat on a regular basis (things that are on the healthy side of course). You might find you already have several days of menus to choose from without even having to look up any new recipes. Your collection of “staple” recipes will grow as you continue your meal planning. You could even intentionally try one new recipe each week or month.
- Keep it simple: Dinner doesn’t have to be an elaborate 5-course meal. One-pot meals and sandwiches can be delicious and full of nourishing ingredients. Lunch can be leftovers, sandwiches or wraps. Breakfast can be a handful of options and doesn’t have to require much prep work. For example, low-sugar whole-grain cereal (without artificial dyes, flavorings or preservatives) with organic milk, and fresh fruit. You can microwave plain oatmeal with organic milk, fresh fruit and a dab of honey.
- Make it visible: Put your meal plan in a place where everyone in the family can see it. This will make it easy to remember what you’re making each night and eliminate questions about what’s for dinner. If anything needs to thaw, this will remind you to set it out in the morning.
- Start small: If eating out has become a regular habit in your household, or if you’ve always been a “fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants” type of dinner maker, start by only planning 3-5 dinners each week. The others can be for eating out or improvising. Gradually increase the number of days you plan and begin adding breakfast and lunch plans.
- Have healthy snacks readily available. It may seem obvious, but a good rule of thumb is to only buy things that you are ok with your kids eating. That way, when they come home from school and start raiding the fridge, you can rest knowing that most anything they choose will be a suitable snack. An even better way to manage snacking is to set aside some time at the beginning of the week to prep and portion out snacks into baggies or containers, then designate a shelf in the refrigerator and in the cupboard that is accessible to kids of all sizes. The kids will feel empowered by the ability to choose their own snack and you will have one less thing to manage during your day. You could also apply this idea to school lunches. Check out this week's health tip for quick and easy healthy snack ideas.
- Stock your kitchen well. In addition to your weekly ingredients based on your meal plan, it’s important to keep your refrigerator and pantry well stocked with all the staples of a simple, quick meal. Some examples are: spices and oils, soy sauce or Braggs, salad ingredients and dressings, whole grain bread and pasta, whole grain tortillas, organic jarred pasta sauce, fresh and frozen veggies for quick stir-fry, canned beans, fresh fruit, tofu, organic cheese, whole grain crackers, nut-butters, oatmeal, etc. Check out a list of healthy ingredients from Vegetarian Times for more suggestions: How to Stock a Healthy Veg Kitchen.
- Cook in bulk (batch cooking and freezer meals).
- Making a pot of chili, a casserole or a pan of lasagna? Why not double the recipe and save the rest for another night? So many recipes can be portioned out into freezer bags or freezer-safe containers and frozen, ready to be defrosted another week for an easy dinner. Batch cooking takes a little more time initially because it requires some extra prep work, but if you already have the ingredients out and are prepping things anyway, the extra effort saves a LOT of time and work in the long run.
- Another angle on batch cooking is to cook up batches of things that can be recombined for different meals during the week. For example, you could cook a whole bag of yams or potatoes, steam a bunch of veggies like beets, cauliflower or broccoli, or make a large pot of brown rice or beans. Those ingredients can then be used for quesadillas or wraps, soups, fried veggie rice, tacos or a simple side dish. With your stocked pantry, you’ll have a variety of sauces and dressings ready to jazz up your rice and veggies for a quick and healthy meal! Excess can be frozen for later.
- Use a slow cooker.
- A slow cooker, also known as a crockpot, is an awesome kitchen tool for busy parents. You can make chili, soups, and stews filled with vegetables and legumes and your favorite spices that will be ready to go when you get home. Serve with the brown rice you cooked ahead of time! There are countless recipes online. Here are a few to get you started:
- Encourage drinking water. Getting your children into the habit of drinking water when they are thirsty will serve them the rest of their life. It’s easy to give in to the requests for juice or soda or the countless other sugar-laden drinks that are everywhere, but as much as possible, keep those for rare occasions and let water be the drink of choice. One idea to make water more appetizing for your kids (and for you) is to make your own “flavored” water. Fill a pitcher with water then add any variety of sliced fruit or fresh herbs. Try strawberries, lemons, oranges, cucumber, mint – be creative! Let the flavors of the fruit or herbs steep in the water all day for a hint of refreshing flavor. Send it to school in your kid’s water bottle. All-natural electrolyte tablets, such as Nuun brand, are also a good addition to a water bottle to encourage drinking more water. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics provides helpful guidelines for knowing how much water your child should be drinking.
- Prioritize exercise, limit screen time. The resounding message we get from children’s health experts today is MORE exercise, LESS screen time for our kids. Physical activity is often lacking at school so it is up to the parents to ensure kids stay active. One way to do this is by shutting off all electronics for a few hours after school and on weekends. No TV, no iPads, no smart phones, etc. Go old-school and send the kids out in the back yard to play, ride their bikes, throw ball, or play tag. Better yet, play with them! Enroll them in after-school programs that involve physical activity. The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute has more information related to exercise and screen time.
- Be an example: As the old saying goes, “children learn what they live.” Show your children that you value healthy eating and exercise by making those things a priority in your own life. Talk about the importance of healthy living and involve them in the cooking and meal planning. If they are taught the value of healthy eating and practice it at home, they will be more likely to turn down the junk food they encounter outside the home.
Nobody wants their children to contribute to the statistics on obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Now is the time to make your children’s health a priority, beginning with what they eat and how much exercise they get. The challenge to raise healthy kids is full of trial and error, successes and failures, but it is fully worth pursuing and worth all the effort we put into it. The healthy lifestyle values that we pass on to our children will lay the foundation for a lifetime of healthy eating and will set them up for success in their adult life. We hope these tips have given you some inspiration!