As a registered dietitian, I understand the struggles families face.
Stress, hectic schedules, budget constraints, and limited food options can all hinder healthier habits.
Also, family members may not always agree on food.
Specialty diet parents may eat differently than the rest of the family. Anger-prone toddlers may refuse to eat while crossing their arms. Teenagers may skip family dinner and drive-through on their way home from school.
While it may seem overwhelming, with careful planning and flexibility, your family can adopt healthier habits.
Here are 16 realistic family eating tips.
1. Forget perfection
Contrary to popular belief, there is no perfect way to eat healthier.
You don’t have to spend a lot of time or money on your meals.
Rather, be realistic and do your best to help your family make healthy choices.
With less pressure to be perfect, you’re more likely to find a healthier eating plan that works for your family.
2. Avoid limiting foods
While some ingredients are more nutritious than others, it’s important to avoid using terms like “bad” or “off-limits” when discussing food.
Plus, too many restrictions can cause tension at mealtimes.
Instead, follow the advice of dietitian Aubrey Redd, MS:
“No food is off-limits. Moderation is the key to a healthy lifestyle. Consider using ‘always’ and‘sometimes’ foods. Snacks should always include fruits and vegetables, but birthday cake is only served on special occasions.
3. Make wellness the goal of healthy eating.
Diets are not only inappropriate for children, but discussing weight in front of them can lead to eating disorders.
Instead of discussing a food’s calorie or fat content, focus on its benefits, such as taste or nutrition.
Also, teach your kids to love and respect their bodies. After all, positive parental talk can help kids develop a positive body image and self-esteem.
4. Make meal planning easy.
Meal planning saves time because you only need to go grocery shopping once or twice a week. Choosing which recipes to make can be difficult.
While there is a time and place for fancy new recipes from Pinterest, it is best to keep it simple during the week.
So Yaffi Lvova, owner of Baby Bloom Nutrition, advises avoiding “new or complicated meals on busy days” and having “two to three backup meals” in the freezer or pantry.
Making meals from what you already have at home can help streamline the process. Using what you have on hand saves time and money while reducing food waste.
Make meal planning a family affair by keeping a running list of meal ideas on a sheet of paper or a dry-erase board in the kitchen.
Tired of the same old meals? Revisit old cookbooks in the basement or attic and mark recipes you want to make as a family.
5. Prioritize meal prep
Most families say they lack time to prepare home-cooked meals and snacks.
Setting aside an hour or two to prep a batch of meals and snacks can actually save you time during the week.
Examine your schedule and set aside a time for meal prep.
Edith Yang, RD, SR, CLT, owner of Healthy Mission Dietitian, suggests 1-2-3 prep: Prep one easy protein, two fruits, and two to three vegetables in 1–2 hours.
In practice, this might mean making oven-baked chicken breasts, a big fruit salad, and roasting zucchini and tomatoes on Sunday.
You don’t have to do everything yourself.
Try dividing meal prep duties among family members or enlisting a friend or relative to watch your kids while you and your partner prepare your meals.
Consider buying an air fryer, slow cooker, or rice cooker to cut down on cooking time.
Finally, buying precut fresh or frozen produce, microwaveable whole grains, or a cooked rotisserie chicken is perfectly acceptable.
6. Share meals
Eating as a family without distractions promotes healthier eating habits, family bonding, and social and emotional development.
Children who eat together eat less fast food and more fruits and vegetables, according to research.
Adults can also benefit. One study found that parents who participate in family dinners are less depressed and stressed.
While it may not be possible to eat together every night, try to do so as often as possible.
Some suggestions for a distraction-free meal:
- No phones at the dinner table.
- Ask fun, thought-provoking questions to spark conversation. For example, what animal would you choose as a pet and why? You can also take turns asking questions as a family.
- Assign each family member a task, such as cooking, table setting, or cleaning.
7. Increase the amount of vegetables in your diet.
Vegetables can be easily added to meals that your family already enjoys.
For example, if Friday is pizza night, set out a variety of vegetable toppings for each member to choose from.
By substituting vegetables for processed meats like sausage and pepperoni, you can make pizza night healthier without upsetting your family.
“I add minced veggies to ground meat dishes,” says Joby Neelankavil, RDN. This increases the nutrient and fiber content of the meat.
For picky eaters, this tip is especially useful.
Budget concerns? Saving money on produce is simple.
Locally grown vegetables, for example, tend to be less expensive and better tasting.
Frozen vegetables are another great option, as they are as nutritious as fresh vegetables but last longer. Also, frozen vegetables cook quickly and are cheaper in bulk.
Finally, canned vegetables are a healthy option if you can’t get fresh produce or want to save money. Look for low-sodium or no-salt options.
Canning vegetables like carrots, beets, diced tomatoes, pumpkin, corn, and peas is a good idea.
8. Vegetables for snacking
If you have to choose between chopping vegetables or buying chips, convenience usually wins.
Stocking the fridge with washed and cut vegetables will encourage your family to snack. Preserve the veggies in clear containers, like mason jars.
So the vegetables are visible and easy to grab. Add a healthy dip like salsa, hummus, or yogurt to the jar of veggies for a complete snack.
Josten Fish, RD and dietitian at Dietitian Meets Mom, recommends this tip before dinner because it is a healthy way to satisfy your family’s hunger.
9. Cook one big meal for the family.
It’s tempting to feed the family more than one meal at dinnertime. This is most common in picky eater households.
Like a sandwich or a bowl of cereal while the rest of the family is eating a casserole.
While it may be easier at the moment, eating the same meal helps your family adopt healthier habits.
But that doesn’t mean you have to force your kids to eat.
Caroline Thomason, “not your average dietitian,” suggests “serving dishes by deconstructing them” for picky eaters.
Her advice is to “serve all the ingredients separately and have each member assemble their own bowl assembly-line style.”
Similarly, serve meals family-style rather than plating them for each family member.
If you have a baby at home, you may consider including them in the meal.
For babies over 6 months, simply purée or chop prepared foods into appropriate consistencies based on their age.
Introduce one new food at a time to help identify food allergies or intolerances.
If you have any concerns about the types or amounts of food you should feed your baby, consult your pediatrician.
10. Serve food in novel ways.
Presenting a variety of foods in new and interactive ways can help kids (and adults) eat healthier snacks.
Instead of putting one snack option in a bowl, make a snack tray or board. Provide options from multiple food groups to maximize the snack’s nutritional value.
Including dips like hummus or peanut butter in a muffin tin allows kids to experiment with different flavors and textures.
Some foods to include are:
- Pear slices
- Orange segments
- sliced berries
- Dried figs
- Snap peas
- Pepper slivers
- It was cheesy
- salted cashews or almonds
11. End the clean plate club
Understanding hunger and fullness cues is critical to a healthy relationship with food.
That said, while it’s natural to want your kids to eat well and thrive, forcing them to finish their plates or eat when they aren’t hungry compromises their health.
I recommend the Ellyn Satter method to reduce power struggles at meals and promote mindful eating: Parents decide what foods to offer when, and kids decide how much or not to eat.
12. Dessert as a reward
It’s common to promise a dessert if your child eats their veggies.
The use of sweets as a reward “sets up the mentality that some foods are better or more valued than others,” according to Dana Peters, MS, RD.
However, desserts can provide a fun and delicious way to add more nutrients to your family’s day.
Nutty grilled fruit kabobs, watermelon cubes dipped in homemade yogurt, and sliced strawberries with whip cream are all healthy options.
Also, keep in mind that traditional desserts like ice cream and brownies can be enjoyed on occasion as part of a healthy lifestyle.
13. More plant-based proteins
Eating more plant-based foods has been linked to many health benefits, including fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals.
Vegan proteins are also more affordable and shelf-stable than animal proteins.
Add nuts, seeds, beans, lentils, tofu, and edamame to your shopping cart.
Not sure how to serve these foods to your family? Some ideas:
- Substitute half of the chicken with tofu. You can also skip the chicken.
- Substitute chickpeas for meat in your favorite soup or stew recipes.
- Make hummus sandwiches and wraps instead of mayo.
- Add walnuts and berries to your oatmeal.
- To your smoothies, add a tablespoon of flax or hemp seeds.
14. Breakfast with whole grains
Making half of your grains whole is recommended for nutritional reasons.
Breakfast is a great time to eat whole grains because refined grains are commonly found in foods like cereal, pancakes, and muffins.
Simple ways to include more whole grains in the morning include:
- Banana and peanut butter toast
- Quinoa porridge with fruit and nuts
- Oat, yogurt, and frozen fruit smoothie
- Cereals with whole grains
- Veggie-egg brown rice
Keep white whole wheat flour on hand for waffles, pancakes, and muffins.
White whole wheat flour is a softer form of whole wheat that is just as nutritious.
It can also be substituted for all-purpose flour in most recipes. To extend the shelf life of white whole wheat flour, store it in the pantry or freezer.
Make large batches of whole wheat pancakes or muffins and freeze any extras for weekday breakfasts.
15. Create flavored drinks
The importance of drinking enough water isn’t always enough.
Make healthier drinks at home with seltzer water and 100% fruit juice.
Making your own drinks is a fun way to avoid sugary drinks, which cause tooth decay in children.
16. Homegrown food
Growing your own food is a great way to get the whole family eating healthier.
Plus, you don’t need a big yard. Vegetables and herbs can be grown indoors or in small pots on a balcony or patio.
You can also sign up for community gardens in some areas.
Growing food is a great way to save money while also increasing your kids’ interest in healthy foods.
Eating healthier takes practice, but the rewards are endless for the whole family.
Encourage healthier habits without being restrictive or adding pressure.
Taking it one step at a time will help you find a healthier eating plan that is realistic and sustainable for your family.