An exhausting routine of soccer practices, work deadlines, and early morning wake-ups makes it understandably easy to put healthy family eating on the back burner. But as time-strapped families trade in big salads for Big Macs, it's no surprise that scales nationwide are buckling under the pressure. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), more than a third of American adults are obese. But the expanding-waistline epidemic impacts far more than just the quality of life among adults. A 2008 Journal of the American Medical Association report puts the number of overweight or obese children at 16 percent, with another 16 percent knocking on the door.
According to Sally Phillips, RD, a nutrition expert at Ohio's Akron Children's Hospital, a child who has an unhealthy body weight not only often has self-esteem issues but is also at increased risk for type 2 diabetes, hypertension, elevated blood cholesterol and triglycerides, and orthopedic problems, “health problems that possibly could impact life expectancy,” she says. Childhood obesity that progresses into grown-up obesity is linked to increased artery wall thickness — a marker for atherosclerosis. And because many overweight children do indeed become plump adults, lifestyle modification at an early age should be emphasized. Try these no-fuss strategies from experts to overcome today's biggest pitfalls of sound family nutrition.
Eating pitfall: The un-family meal
The sit-down meal is an endangered family function thanks to hectic schedules, television and video games, and the perceived uncoolness of noshing with the folks.
Why fret: Family meals foster communication and usually lead to higher intakes of fruits, vegetables, calcium, and fiber and lower amounts of unhealthy fats, sugar, and sodium, says Keith-Thomas Ayoob, RD, associate professor in the department of pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. No surprise then that a 2007 Journal of the American Dietetic Association study found that tykes who took in fewer family meals (and watched more TV) were more likely to be overweight. Plus, research last year at the University of Minnesota found that adolescent girls who ate often with family were less prone to use cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs.
Try this: Commit to a sit-down meal most days of the week, suggests Brenda J. Ponichtera, RD, author of Quick and Healthy Recipes and Ideas (Small Steps, 2008). And don't overlook breakfast as potential family time, says Ayoob. “Kids who eat a well-balanced breakfast do better in school, have improved vitamin and mineral intake, and are more likely to maintain a healthy body weight.”
Eating pitfall: liquid calories
These days, the average American household obtains more than 20 percent of its daily calories from beverages. On average, soft drinks account for 8 percent of adolescents' calorie intake.
Why fret: The rise in beverage consumption has mirrored the country's tramp toward rounder figures. “Satiety is less when you drink calories versus eating the same calories in foods because drinks empty from the stomach quicker,” says Phillips. “The extra calories from liquids can easily exceed what the body can use.” The worst offenders are “liquid candy” like soda and energy, sport, and sweetened fruit drinks. In a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Harvard researchers confirmed that a greater intake of these beverages leads to weight gain in adults and children. “Plus, most sweetened drinks don't have much nutritional value,” says Ayoob. Though they contain important vitamins, fruit juices such as orange, cranberry, and apple still pack a lot of concentrated sugar.
Try this: Phillips recommends limiting empty-calorie sweetened beverages and replacing them with unsweetened choices like low-fat milk, homemade iced teas, and water jazzed up with lemon or lime. Keep daily intake of fruit juice to 4-8 ounces, and focus on eating whole fruits instead. “You can also freeze fruit juice in ice-cube trays,” says Phillips. “Pop these into water for a hint of sweet flavor.” Send your children to school or camp with a reusable, BPA-free water container (stainless steel works well) so they get in the aqua habit. And consider stocking the fridge with refreshing, potassium-rich coconut water.
Eating pitfall: Chicken, again?
Never before has such a variety of foods been more readily available. But many families fall into the trap of eating the same familiar eats — like spaghetti, chicken, and PB&J sandwiches — week in and week out.
Why fret: When children are presented with the same foods, they don't learn to appreciate new flavors and textures, reinforcing a picky palate and a fear of unfamiliar foods, says Ayoob. From a body-weight standpoint, a 2008 article published in Science suggests that when the brain isn't gratified from food — which can happen when the family eats roast chicken for the fourth time that week — people are more likely to make midnight fridge raids and add to total calorie intake.
Try this: Once a week, have a new-food-of-the-week meal, featuring healthy ingredients such as quinoa, lean bison, or kale paired with family faves to encourage branching out. “Don't throw in the towel if your child emphatically refuses it at the start. Research shows that it can take ten or more times before a new food is accepted by a finicky eater,” says Phillips, a mother of two. She suggests letting kids loose in the produce department, allowing them to pick a new fresh item they are curious about and then involving them in its preparation so they are more likely to try it. “Or substitute familiar foods like apples with pears,” Ayoob recommends.
Eating pitfall: Snack attacks
With so much unhealthy snack food marketed toward kids, it's easy for tykes to graze their way to a bigger pant size.
Why fret: A 2008 study in Italy linked savory, energy-dense snack foods with childhood obesity. And USDA research shows the percentage of children eating three regular meals a day has decreased over the past 25 years, while consumption of high-calorie snack-type foods has gone up. “Unhealthy snacking can have an impact on academic performance, energy levels, and weight,” Ayoob says.
Try this: Give your pantry and fridge an overhaul. Get rid of nutrient-devoid chips, cookies, and soda. “Replace these with healthier, portable fuel like nuts, baby carrots, low-fat string and cottage cheese, yogurt, and dried fruit,” suggests Ayoob. This does away with the good-versus-bad food battle on the home front. Ponichtera suggests keeping a bowl of varicolored seasonal fruit on the counter for when your kids return home ravenous. She also recommends offering sliced veggies and fruit with yummy and nutritious yogurt, guacamole, or hummus dips, or making after-school smoothies with frozen fruit, low-fat milk, and yogurt. And check out Delicious Living's healthy snacks for kids.
Because watching television — including all those commercials extolling unhealthy foods — provides an ideal time for mindless snacking (studies link excess TV time with elevated body fat), consider pulling the plug after an hour. And if you must snack in front of the tube, “natural, unbuttered popcorn is excellent because it's whole grain, low in calories, and high in filling fiber,” Ponichtera says.
Eating pitfall: Meals in a hurry
The need for something quick may be why half of total U.S. food expenditures today go to meals prepared outside the home.
Why fret: Studies suggest that the more you purchase fast food, the greater your girth. “This should come as no surprise because what is often ordered is mostly out-of-control portions higher in calories, fat, sugar, and salt than what would be served at home,” says Ayoob. Even shunning the Golden Arches for what you believe to be a smarter option could pack on pounds. Researchers reported in the Journal of Consumer Research that you are likely to underestimate the calories in a meal from a restaurant marketed as “healthier,” like Subway, than those in a meal from a perceived bad guy such as McDonald's. This mistake often leads to overeating when you purchase extra or bigger sides, suggest the study authors.
Parents should also take heed of a recent University of Minnesota study suggesting that adolescents who are part of families that rely on fewer than three purchased meals per week are more likely to consume milk and vegetables with meals and less prone to indulge in soda and chips at home.
Try this: Skip the drive-through and wipe the dust off your Joy of Cooking. “Preparing more home-cooked meals is all about planning and implementing time-saving strategies,” says Ponichtera, a mother of two. Take time during the weekend to create dinner menus for the coming week, with input from all family members, and make a detailed grocery list. This way you can get everything you need ahead of time and in one shot. Ponichtera also stresses the “cook once, serve twice” trick where you purposely make double the recipe and serve leftovers later — with different sides for variety. Need help with menu planning? Check out Delicious Living's healthy, affordable dinner recipes, or check out Ponichtera's Quick and Healthy Recipes and Ideas, Volume II (Small Steps, 2009).
When time becomes a premium, toss ingredients for stews or chilies into a slow cooker in the morning. “Always have a few homemade dishes that can be easily warmed up, such as lasagna, soups, and casseroles, in your freezer,” adds Ponichtera. You can also freeze food in lunch-size containers to take to work. On days when you do have time to cook, make salads and dressings, or bean, vegetable, and grain side dishes, so they will be ready accompaniments for the week's entrées. If possible, get your kids to help. “Involving children in the meal prep not only saves parents time but also teaches kids valuable cooking skills they might otherwise lack,” says Ponichtera.