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10 Strategies for healthy family meals

Michele Borboa, MS is a freelance writer and editor specializing in health, fitness, food, lifestyle, and pets. Michele is a health and wellness expert, personal chef, cookbook author, and pet-lover based in Bozeman, Montana. She is also...

Healthy cooking tips & tricks

Feeding your family healthy meals doesn't mean you have to jam-pack your already busy schedule with extra shopping and hours of food prepping. Registered dietitian Susan Burke March, author of Making Weight Control Second Nature, shares her proven strategies for turning your family meals into hassle-free, nutritious and delicious endeavors.

Family making salad at home

Children learn from their parents

According to March, more than 50 percent of Americans start a diet each year and lose a few pounds. However, many of them regain the weight and continue to start and stop in an endless cycle of unsuccessful weight loss. If you are in a constant struggle with your scale, there's a good chance your children will grow up with that same battle. Children learn from their parents, and the current epidemic of overweight children reflects the poor food choices and sedentary lifestyles that have led to two-thirds of Americans being overweight or obese.

Being overweight is not natural

You may think that your failed attempts at dieting mean you are destined to be overweight, but March has a different opinion. She points to societal factors as sources of encouragement to eat too much and exercise too little.

"We live in a time of huge portions, cheap food and technology that contributes to our burning fewer calories, and we spend so much time sitting that it's quite easy to overeat and underexercise," she says. "Television, print advertising, radio and billboards all encourage us to overeat. So it's nearly impossible to not be influenced by our environment, and I don't accept this as natural."

Start in the kitchen

Despite the barrage of processed, packaged foods, restaurants and convenience stores on every corner, and strategically located drive-thru joints, March says you really can change your family's eating habits to promote healthy weight loss or maintenance. The best place to start is in your kitchen — and this doesn't mean that is where you'll be spending all of your time. From cooking methods to the types of pans you use, here are some sensible strategies for family-friendly nutritious meals.

1

Prepare to succeed!

Plan your meals in advance, eat a healthy snack and then go shopping to better avoid impulse purchases. You'll have the healthy options you need at hand when you're hungry and actually start to cook. Just be sure you don't mindlessly munch as you are putting groceries away or preparing meals — those seemingly innocent bites here and there can quickly add up.

Plan healthy meals on a budget >>

2

Cook simply

The recipe rule is this: Keep it simple!

"Avoid recipes with too many steps and ingredients," suggests March. "A simple grilled, broiled or baked dish without too many components and processes, a fresh vegetable and a starch are your best bets."

Look for 30-minute meals or healthy recipes with short lists of ingredients.

3

Keep it lean

Buy the leanest cuts of meat and trim all visible fat before cooking. Ground meat should be at least 95 percent lean. Try ground turkey burgers for a change, or replace at least one-third of your ground beef with ground turkey breast. Be sure to buy ground turkey breast, as the alternative variety contains skin and dark meat, making it higher in fat and calories.

Healthy ground turkey recipes >>

4

Stick to nonstick

Stock up on nonstick pans for baking, grilling and sauteing — and even for soup. Nonstick pans allow you to avoid using oil in favor of healthier options like cooking spray, wine, water or fruit juice. To extend the life of your pans, use and care for them according to manufacturer's directions.

5

Modify your cooking methods

Bake, broil, grill or poach your proteins.

"Rather than basting with butter or margarine, cut the saturated fats and transfats by basting with flavorful vegetable broth, white wine or orange juice," March explains. "Avoid recipes with heavy sauces and gravies to keep your menus low in fat."

6

Crumbs count

Instead of commercial breadcrumbs, which are usually full of oil and transfats, substitute a low-sugar crunchy breakfast cereal such as Grape Nuts or organic wheat flakes.

"Avoid cereals with more than 4 to 6 grams of sugar per serving," March warns.

Read labels and opt for cereals that also have the most fiber.

7

Sweeten naturally

Reducing the amount of fat and sugar in your recipes doesn't mean forsaking taste and enjoyment.

March suggests, "Replace half the oil with applesauce or fruit puree for an equally moist muffin or cake. Use one-third less sugar in cakes or cookies and use dried, unsweetened fruit such as raisins or diced dates to add natural sweetness to cereal."

You can also experiment with sucralose (Splenda) for baking, and you can give some of the excellent sugar-free syrups and low-calorie pudding mixes a try.

How to substitute juice in your favorite recipes >>

8

Dairy do's

Did you know that whole milk contains 1 gram of saturated fat per ounce? A serving of milk is 8 ounces, which translates to 8 grams of heart-harming saturated fat per glass. March recommends switching all dairy consumption to nonfat or 1 percent, including milk, cheese and yogurt.

"Nonfat evaporated milk has a creamy consistency and works well as a lower-calorie but pleasing condensed-milk substitute in sauces, pies, ice cream and, of course, tea and coffee," says the registered dietitian. "Low-fat buttermilk makes a good substitute for whole milk in many recipes. In all recipes, substitute two egg whites for one whole egg to cut the fat, cholesterol and calories."

9

Just desserts

You can have your cake and eat it, too — with a few diet-friendly substitutions. For example, reduce calories and fat in decadent desserts like cheesecake by substituting low-fat ricotta cheese for whole-milk cheese, or when a recipe calls for sour cream, try lower-fat, Greek-style, creamy plain yogurt instead.

Vegan chocolate cake with fruit recipe >>

10

Double up

Since you are taking the time to cook a meal, why not make extra to save you time later in the week or month? Double the recipe ingredients and freeze half of your completed dish. If you regularly eat lunch away from home or pack your children's lunch, you can even freeze food in individual microwave-safe containers that can be reheated at the office or cafeteria. This will ward off the temptation to raid the vending machine or convenience store aisles.

Setting a healthy example for your children by cooking healthy meals will not only keep your entire family nutritiously fed, but it will teach your children that eating modest portion sizes of home-cooked meals — not eating supersized candy bars and bags of fast food — is the norm. If following these kitchen strategies seems like a tall order, start with one (or a few) and gradually improve your cooking style until health-conscious cooking becomes a natural, healthy habit.

More ways to raise a healthy family

10 Ways to promote heart-healthy habits for your family
10 Family-friendly organic snack ideas
Healthy eating habits for kids

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