Make Nutrition Fun for the Whole Family

By Tracy Suzanne Williams

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics as well as other healthcare organizations promote the importance of family meals. Families who frequently eat together are more likely to be closer because family meals give children and adults alike an opportunity to discuss their day. The Family Meal Project says that children and teens who take part in family meals have a better academic performance and more self-confidence because they are given the opportunity to be heard and respected. Child psychologists say that children and teens are often more resilient when they experience adversity if they participate in more family meals. In addition, they note that teens are less likely to engage in substance abuse and are better able to handle negative peer pressure if they experience positive conversations at the family dinner table. Family meals and positive conversations may also lower the risk of teens struggling with an eating disorder.

Adopt 'Division of Responsibility' to Engage the Family in Nutrition

Family Nutrition

Dietitians recommend that families have healthy balanced meals. McKenzie Caldwell, MPH, RDN recommends choosing whole grains, starchy vegetables, non-starchy vegetable and a lean protein at both lunch and dinner. For breakfast, preparing overnight oats can make mornings simple, but to make things even easier, try grab-and-go items, like yogurt, fruit and hard-boiled egg. Make sure that snacks are simple, such as fruits, cut-up vegetables, nuts, or nut butters, yogurt and cheese, limiting sweets like cookies, cupcakes, cakes and candies. If family meals are too stressful for the entire week, consider cooking at home just one or two times a week.

Erin Davis, RD, LDN encourages her clients to be aware of their family budgets when making healthy meal choices. Involve the whole family; allow each family member to contribute to a list of meal choices while also focusing on purchasing foods that are on sale or in bulk. Holly Paulsen, RD, LD, CEDRD suggests adopting the "Division of Responsibility" (DOR) in feeding families, promoted by nationally renowned dietitian and psychotherapist Ellyn Satter. In DOR, parents are responsible for deciding 'what' and 'when' the family will eat; and each child is responsible for deciding 'how much' and 'whether' he or she will eat. According to Paulsen, this approach can help children develop their individual ability to self-regulate food intake and take the stress out of mealtimes. Paulsen also suggests that people add fruits and vegetables as a healthy side to meals with convenience foods.

Many proactive dietitians support take-out foods as part of a family meal to teach children that there are no bad foods. It is important to research menus in order to choose the healthiest options. Larger groups should split portions in social settings. Take-out meals can be nutrient-rich and may cost more than home-cooked choices. But, Caldwell says, take-out meals are convenient and can be a healthy and enjoyable once in a while.

Eating Your Veggies Trumps Eating Organic Veggies

There is a strong debate about consuming organic fruits and vegetables over conventionally grown produce. Caldwell says, "It is more important to eat fruits and vegetables than it is to eat organic produce." Shopping at a local farmers market may have a bigger impact on reducing carbon footprints than having organic produce from a traditional grocery store. Many small farms grow their produce with organic methods but simply cannot afford the "official" organic label, or spot treat their fields with minimal pesticides. Davis believes that the organic produce debate only confuses people by imposing rigid or impossible rules. She also advises her clients to consider the Clean 15 and Dirty 12 lists only if their socioeconomic status allows them to include organic produce in their food budget.

Carbohydrates are also a topic of fierce debate. It is more important to consider the types of carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are the efficient fuel for the human body and it is more important to choose more nutrient dense carbohydrate choices, like whole grains or starchy fiber-rich vegetables and beans and legumes more often than refined carbohydrates such as sweets, white bread and fried potatoes.

Nutrition is Individual for You and Your Health Status

The popularity of fad diets in American culture makes it challenging to know where to turn for accurate nutrition information. Fad diets are confusing because so many celebrities use their clout to promote specific diets. A typical family may not know who would be considered to be a credible source, even though registered dietitians have become more well known. Caldwell tells her clients that fad diets are not necessary for good health. She explains that our bodies appreciate balance, variety and moderation, not anything extreme. Davis supports the Health at Every Size movement, which encourages respect for all body types and believes that the public will find their own definition of health and confidence. Adopting sustainable health practices, including eating habits that fit your lifestyle long-term, are key to the Health at Every Size movement.

Dietitians and clients alike should keep it simple and make goals specific to each individual and their health status. Some dietitians who specialize in eating disorders advocate for the clients to focus on the ingredient list rather than the nutrition facts label since anyone can run the risk of getting fixated on the nutrition facts labels. Caldwell believes that for some of the most basic packaged foods, nutrition labels are not important. This includes brown rice, whole-grain pasta, dry beans, frozen vegetables, plain yogurt, or low sodium beans. She says that desserts should only be desserts and the focus should be on the portion sizes, rather than on the nutrition facts label.

Proper nutrition is crucial for family meals, which should include food from each food group. Proper nutrition and family meals are vital for the health of the American family.

About the Author:

Tracy Williams has her degree in Nutrition and Dietetics from Dominican University. She is a five-time recipient of nutrition education grants from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She enjoys public speaking, writing on nutrition topics. She enjoys debunking myths related to nutrition issues for all people no matter how they may experience life. She has presented at non-profit organizations, schools, rotary clubs, garden clubs, libraries, as well as a few churches. She is a strong advocate for all diversity in the world around, especially for people with disabilities because she happens to have cerebral palsy. You can connect with her on Facebook, LinkedIn and her website. She loves to inspire people to live a healthier lifestyle. You can also meet her in person at Abilities Expo Chicago for her Healthy Living is a Personal Journey: Not Every Path is the Same workshop.

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