Like many kids of the ‘70s and early ‘80s, my husband and I grew up on plenty of pre-packaged meals and processed foods. I’ve shared before what my old-school lunches consisted of, and my husband proudly states that not a single Wednesday went by during his childhood where his family didn’t partake in a Stouffer’s frozen lasagna. The packaged food era has been on a steady incline since the ‘50s, and no doubt our mothers were thrilled to continue to have new-to-them convenience foods ready to serve up on a busy workday or a lazy Sunday. But in between laughing over school lunch memories and frozen TV dinners, I still have vivid memories of my mom cooking countless meals from scratch, and my husband states the same. So while we had our fair share of processed foods, we also had an overwhelming majority of fresh, homemade meals in our diet as well.
These days, things are different in the vast food world. There are over 70,000 items lining the grocery store shelves, and at least 60 percent of them contain added sugars. Kids these days, and most grown-ups too, consume upwards of 40 percent of their daily calories from sugar- and fat-laced foods, often considered “empty calories” that don’t offer a lot of nutritional value. The average American eats out five times a week, and it’s been proven time and time again that the average restaurant meal, especially the kind that a budget-conscious family would eat, has more calories than the same meal cooked at home. How many, you ask? A whopping 1,400 calories.
My family was a part of most of the above statistics last year that comprise the Standard American Diet (SAD). While I made lots of home-cooked meals, we ate out plenty during the week, and many dinner side items I made at home came from a box or a package with lots of additives, including preservatives and artificial ingredients. Our produce consumption wasn’t terrible, as I always made it a point to serve a vegetable alongside the protein and starch, but there was definitely room for improvement. And of course, we loved the drive-thru lane and visited one at least every other week. All in all, while we certainly weren’t the unhealthiest of families, especially considering we were all active, we definitely partook in plenty of fast foods and processed foods.
That’s why last summer I set out to change all of this by focusing on consuming real, whole foods.
We began gradually, and it’s the best piece of advice I can give a family struggling to change their eating habits. In the beginning, it was fairly easy for me to venture into the waters of clean eating since as a grown-up, I could rationally understand the errors of our food-eating ways and my cravings for junk food didn’t end with a temper tantrum in the middle of a restaurant (although some occasional sulking was part of the process). While I began cooking strictly for myself out of Gwyneth Paltrow’s It’s All Good cookbook, I was hesitant to test the waters with my family. I wanted to make sure this way of eating was sustainable for a family of five, and I wanted to make sure I had a solid grasp on cooking healthy, tasty meals before I tried to convert my family.
While there were definitely bumps in the road, including whining, complaining, and a meltdown or two in the middle of a restaurant, we’ve made the transition to eating much healthier than we used to. Of course we all still crave some of the old staples we used to enjoy on the daily, but overall, our taste buds and preferences have adjusted along with our diet. In fact, research proves that our tastes can change as a result of changing eating habits, not as a result of my powerful brainwashing skills. While it’s difficult to recap a year-long eating experiment into just a few paragraphs, here are a few tips I can share with you based on our own ups and downs that have helped make the transition to a healthier way of eating not only possible, but much easier.
1. Start slow
In the beginning, get your feet wet with the idea of eating better by swapping out a few everyday staples for healthier alternatives and trying a new healthy recipe each week. Had I began by throwing away everything in my pantry and fridge and essentially starting over, it would have been too overwhelming. Allowing myself to supplement current items on hand with healthier alternatives, like maple syrup or coconut sugar instead of refined sugar, made the process seem less daunting.
2. Learn to read labels
This is essential if you truly want to understand where your food comes from and what’s inside it! This article offers a great breakdown of some of the most common artificial ingredients to stay away from and how to look out for them. While occasionally we let some foods slip through the cracks, we always try and avoid food with any form of MSG, artificial anything including dyes and sweeteners, partially hydrogenated oils, and added sugar in places it doesn’t need to be, like deli meat.
3. Get a few good and easy healthy recipes under your belt
Literally hundreds of thousands of healthier recipe alternatives exist for some of your family’s beloved meals, so start by taking some family favorites and putting a healthier spin on them. Don’t start off by serving your meat-loving family a completely vegan meal, instead ease into that sort of extreme. Show your family that healthy can taste just as good, if not better, than junkier alternatives, and the plus side is they’re almost guaranteed to feel better eating the healthier version.
4. When you’re feeling confident, begin drawing some hard and fast lines
Once I felt like I had a handle on things, I started putting my foot down in certain areas so there was no longer this wishy-washy stance on healthy eating. For us, it was getting my kids hooked off of chicken fingers when going out to restaurants and saying “no” to fast food.
5. Talk openly with your family
The best way to get your family on board, besides making healthy meals, is to talk openly with them about why you’re eager for change. We often take for granted that kids won’t understand or be reasonable when it comes to giving up foods for health, but I’ve seen remarkable openness from my 7- and 9-year old on the subject. Sure, you’ll be hard-pressed to willingly get your 3-year-old on board with a simple conversation, but the older kids may just surprise you. While they will most likely mourn the loss of their favorite fast food meal, they may at least understand you’re putting your foot down because you care about them, not because you’re trying to be mean and controlling.
6. View your old foods as treats, not everyday staples
When we changed our eating habits, we didn’t sign a contract stating we’d never touch some of our old favorites again, we just made a commitment to not have them as part of our everyday staples. We do, however, view them as a special treat and partake in some of our favorite junk foods at parties or on special occasions. Everyone is different in this department, though, as I know plenty of people who let loose when outside of the home and then plenty who maintain strict eating guidelines 24/7. I’m just sharing what has worked for us here, and that’s been to place limits and restrictions on what we eat inside the home so that when we’re outside the home, I don’t sweat the occasional diversion.
Of course we’ve all had some ups and downs over the last year. The kids don’t always love what I make, especially when it comes to my “healthy” desserts, and I’ve gone through periods when I’m extremely resentful of how much time it takes to feed my family this way, mostly in the form of cooking. Yes, I get tired from all the cooking. But on those days, I’ll take a night off and order take-out, and I’m usually recharged and ready to go back at it the next day.
I’m often asked how I’ve gotten the kids on board. What I tell them is this: At the end of the day, we’re still the parents and have to put our foot down. As with all the rules and limits we set for them, there’s going to be some pushback and quite possibly tears and tantrums. But if you feel strongly in maintaining the course, they’ll eventually fall in line. I don’t say it often, but every once in a while when they complain about a meal I’ve made or a lunch I’ve packed, I sound eerily similar to my mother in my response: “Until you’re paying for the food and doing the cooking, you don’t have room to complain.” It usually doesn’t come to that, but every so often it feels good and weird to turn into my mother.
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