Inevitably, eating healthfully comes with a certain set of challenges. But there may be one roadblock to a nutritious diet that many people don’t know about: having children.
Researchers from the University of Reading in England and the Scottish Agricultural College found that people in households with children ate fewer fruits and vegetables than did couples without children. Weekly, a couple without children will eat about four and half more pounds of produce than the average household with kids, according to a study published in last month’s European Review of Agricultural Economics.
When it comes to preparing meals, many parents prioritize convenience, says registered dietician Linda Van Horn, professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.
“Raising children, of course, is a full-time job in and of itself,” she says. “Many of the barriers and limitations that relate to consuming a nutritious diet fall typically into either time or money management and also just pure exhaustion or energy level of the parents – typically the mom – trying to come up with meals.”
American families should see the study’s findings as a wake-up call, says Karen Ansel, a registered dietician and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. The potential long-term effects of an unhealthy diet are devastating and may include such grave issues as heart disease, she says.
However, a few simple alterations to a family’s eating habits and daily routine can improve its members’ health.
Blogger Lesley Graham of Marietta, Ga., has lost about 30 pounds since making the decision to introduce more healthy foods into her family’s diet a little more than a year ago. Now, her blog, Homemade Grits, is partially dedicated to providing tips to families that want to follow in her footsteps.
When she made the decision to eat more healthfully, she set out to educate herself about food labels and the real health benefits of popular foods. “There were so many things that I thought were good foods, and I found out they weren’t,” she says.
She recommends looking for nutrition classes at neighborhood schools or churches. When in doubt, she follows a simple rule of thumb: “completely avoid the middle of the grocery store,” where most of the over-processed and packaged foods are.
Introduce the culture
Start children on a healthy diet as early as possible. For some people, this may mean making lifestyle changes even before a baby is born.
“Preparing for parenthood should include learning how to cook if you don’t know already,” Van Horn says. Not feeling comfortable in a kitchen can deter parents – especially when dealing with the stressors of having a new baby – from preparing nutritious meals at home.
Teaching kids early on to enjoy meals and snacks full of fresh produce means fewer arguments over meals as they grow up. “If they’re young, you have a golden opportunity,” Ansel says. “They’re like a blank slate”
But older children shouldn’t be considered a lost cause, she says. She suggests easing kids into eating vegetables regularly by making salads that can incorporate other ingredients, such as nuts or croutons, they already like. Mixing vegetables into foods that are already family staples can also get kids used to seeing and enjoying fresh produce.
Pick your battles
In some families, trying to get children to eat their vegetables devolves into an argument. It can be a source of frustration and friction, akin to fights about getting kids to finish their homework, Ansel says.
“The key is to get them eating the vegetables,” Ansel says. “Don’t worry about how. I wouldn’t worry about adding something that puts a little bit of fat on them.” If this means serving apple slices with caramel sauce or giving kids raw vegetables with salad dressing until they get accustomed to having fruits and vegetables as part of their diet, so be it.
Additionally, eating the occasional meal at a restaurant can make a generally healthy lifestyle seem more realistic. “We do it once a week and when we do, we eat whatever we want,” Graham says.
The practice keeps her and her husband from feeling as if they are depriving themselves of certain foods and keeps craving for less healthy foods that they don’t keep in the house at bay.
Plan ahead Before her conscious decision to have healthy meals regularly, Graham says she got into the habit of serving foods such as frozen pizzas for dinner.
For many parents, that’s a common solution, Van Horn says.
“There’s no question that if a busy parent gives absolutely no thought about what to make for dinner until 5:30 p.m., when everyone is starving and looking to Mom and Dad to fill them before going off to some kind of activity, the limits to that decision-making are strong,” she says. “The path of least resistance is going to either be fast food or something you can throw from the freezer to the microwave.”
As a working mother of two, she understands the temptation herself. Taking a few minutes in the morning to consider what to make for dinner and get organized can help alleviate evening pressure.
Graham recommends making one big trip to the grocery store to stock up on food that can be made into several dishes throughout the week. She and her husband take turns doing the shopping and cooking so that neither feels like they spend too much time in the store or kitchen.
“Kids tend to eat better, eat less and eat more nutritiously when they’re consuming a meal together with their family rather than eating out,” Van Horn says, noting that the instance of people eating at restaurants has more than tripled in the last two decades.
When families eat together, children don’t just see food as something that needs to be fast and filling. Additionally, parents can monitor healthy portion sizes.
“Honoring the importance of the family table, where people get together and sit around a table and talk about their day, is growing in value, not just nutritionally, but behaviorally and in many other ways,” Van Horn says.