One of the most common barriers to diet and lifestyle change that I hear is “My children or husband won’t eat that way.” I see many women that are suffering the consequences of the Standard American Diet, and they recognize the effects on their own bodies, but the challenge of making diet changes for the whole family is daunting. This often gets in the way of women feeling successful when implementing a holistic plan of care to meet their own health needs.
Eating becomes a ritual and is an emotional event for people. We fall into patterns and learn to eat the foods that were prepared or available when we were children. With this in mind, it is important to consider the patterns and food preferences we are creating in our children. If we as adults find that our diet is having negative health consequences, isn’t that a sign that we should change our eating patterns at home? Maybe the diet we have been consuming will have the same - or worse - impact on the developing bodies of our children.
Making changes in mealtime does not have to be complicated, and the simpler it is, the easier it will be on mom and the family. The following strategies are a simple way to ease into healthy eating for the whole family.
Strategies to implement change for the whole family
1. Consider engaging the whole family in meal planning and meal preparation - especially children. Reframing mealtime for the whole family can make it easier for mom to stick with a plan to improve her own health. Meal planning and eating together as a family offers significant positive benefits including:
Healthier eating into adulthood
Healthier body weight
Decreased risk of disordered eating
Better self esteem
Decreased risk of depression
Improved grades and test scores
Evidence shows that engaging children in food preparation increases the likelihood they will eat a healthy meal, teaches them important life skills and time management, and offers a time for conversation which may not otherwise happen.
2. Serve more vegetables: eating more vegetables of all colors is like a multivitamin on your plate, helps you feel more satisfied and decreases hunger pains. Aim to have half the plate covered with vegetables, one fourth a complex carbohydrate and one fourth a protein source. Look for recipes that make vegetables fun and appealing to eat.
Here are links for a couple of great cookbooks with excellent recipes:
3. Reduce prepared or packaged foods: foods that have already been seasoned or packaged are filled with preservatives and chemicals that would not be present in food that you make from scratch. For example: rather than buying a roasted chicken, buy a raw chicken and roast it at home.
4. Decrease refined grains: these include things like white rice, pasta, bread and baked goods. Instead choose options like brown rice, quinoa, buckwheat, riced cauliflower, cooked and cooled (then reheated) organic potatoes. These foods are excellent sources of resistant starch and can help the whole family maintain a balanced microbiome in the gut.
5. Stop buying flavored/sugary drinks: whether filled with sugar or “sugar-free,” flavored drinks increase insulin resistance and cause significant harm to the gut microbiome. Instead consider making your own infused water by adding fresh fruit to a water pitcher and letting it sit while you prepare the rest of the meal. Fun options include strawberry/mint, lemon/ginger, lime/mint.
6. Avoid screen time during mealtime: eating in front of the television or while watching something on a device actually increases overeating. Instead, play a game around the table or talk about the day. Then plan a family walk after your meal to increase activity and help promote healthy digestion.
The fact is, the American diet and lifestyle are having real consequences on the health of our children. It is time to take a step back and evaluate how the choices we make today will effect not only our own bodies, but the bodies of everyone in the family. Childhood obesity rates were at an all time high (19%) in the U.S. based on statistics collected in 2017-2018. 10% of children in the U.S. in 2018 were diagnosed with either anxiety or depression, up from 8% in 2012. 10% of children in the U.S. have NAFLD (non-alcoholic fatty liver disease) due to the increasing rates of childhood obesity. These figures are likely quite higher following the last year we have all suffered through.
As a parent of three children, I have lived the struggle to keep family mealtime a tradition despite after school activities and homework. Even with the crazy schedules and running around, we managed to eat together as a family more nights than not throughout their high school years. Setting the expectation that this was not negotiable may have been part of our success.
When starting a new tradition of family meals that are health oriented, mom may encounter some initial resistance. However, by setting the expectation that a new norm is being created and by engaging all family members as active participants, it is possible to improve mom’s health while improving the family’s as well.