A friend of mine is having a hard time moving his wife and three young children from their unhealthy but convenient fast food diets. This transition takes some planning, but not as much time, or money, as one might expect.
After a long day of work and school, your house is probably full of hungry people. You scan the inside of your fridge and freezer in the hopes of finding culinary inspiration, but find only a flat, square box: frozen pizza. You turn the oven’s dial to 400 C and in 20 minutes, the troops are fed and you get to relax.
Sure, it’s not ideal, but with so much going on in your life – soccer, parent-teacher meetings, work, house cleaning – frozen pizza and McDonalds is often the default choice of convenience. Finding time to prepare and cook up a healthy meal, or even knowing what to cook, can be daunting for most. But are you happy knowing that you're the reason your children won't live as long as the previous generation. It doesn't have to be this way.
“People have really busy lives these days, with activities, and work and school. We live in a society where the focus has moved away from preparing family meals and sitting down together,” says Tesia Bennett, a registered dietician with the Pediatric Centre for Weight and Health. “We have such great access to convenience foods.
The trouble is what’s fast and easy is rarely the healthiest. Bennett points out that prepared foods tend to be higher in fat, sodium and sugar than homemade meals. This goes for both the preppared meals you find in grocery stores and the ones in fast food restaurants, too.
In 2004, a Statistics Canada study revealed that, on average, Canadians consumed 3,400 mg of sodium a day, a far cry from the 1,500 mg maximum that doctors recommend. 72% of that salt comes from processed foods and these statistics haven’t improved in the past 6 years. In addition to their high fat content, prepared foods also contain higher levels of trans-fats, a kind of fat that raises the amount of bad cholesterol in your blood stream. This unhealthy diet is typical of most North Americans and is responsible for the growing number of people dying of degenerative diseases including cancer, which is directly contributing to the run-away health care costs.
With the knowledge of the risks associated with prepared foods, and the benefits of a healthy diet and weight control, there’s no better reason to prioritize eating well and the timing to to start now. But where do you start? Here's three easy steps:
- Sit down as a family once a week and come up with meals for the following week or, if that sounds too ambitious, do ti for the next few days. It’s good to involve the kids, too. Ask them if there’s something they’d like for dinner, or snacks. Giving children the chance to participate creates an opportunity to teach them about healthy food.
- After coming up with a number of dinner ideas, check the fridge and pantry to see what ingredients you have and what you need before drafting a grocery list. This will be your secret weapon the next time you venture into the grocery store. Having a list reduces the impulse buying at the grocery store, rather than going in there with no plan and shopping with your eyes, or worse, your stomach. If you’re still concerned about impulsively throwing convenience foods into the cart, stick to the perimeter of the store. That's generally where the real food resides. Most of the unhealthy convenience items lurk in the aisles at the centre of the store. Produce and other healthy chioces tend to be located on the far walls of most grocery stores. While it may seem like more work up front, making a list can also minimize your time in the grocery store and the number of times you go grocery shopping each week.
- The third step is cooking, but it needn’t be arduous. There are many ways to reduce cooking time.. Sometimes your microwave can be used in lieu of the oven. My wife will often use a slow cooker to prepare entire meals the night before. Just throw in the ingredients and turn it on before you go to work. Other strategies include defrosting meat the night before and cutting up vegetables ahead of time. Kids can often help with this.
As you’re prepping for the next day’s meal, you can also make lunches at the same time – another task kids can help with. Packing your own lunch isn’t just healthy; it’s about $400 cheaper annually than hitting the drive through. My wife and I involved our daughter in meal preparation ever since she was a young child and now that she’s 25 and living in London England, she has a love for cooking delicious healthy meals and would never eat something out of a box, or default for a fast food pit stop meal.
Of course, old habits can be tough to break, so I suggest that families make changes gradually and together. If you’ve been eating out 4 to 5 nights a week, cooking all week might not be realistic. However, if you’re opting for prepared foods for dinner, there are things you can do to improve the nutritional quality of the meal. For example, if you’re ordering in pizza, substitute salad for the wings, or prepare a platter of fresh vegetables as an appetizer and order a small pizza instead of a large.
If you’re unsure about how to create a balanced meal, don’t be bogged down by the contradictory health studies and other information in the media. In the end, healthy eating can be pretty basic. Eat 7 to 10 servings of fruits and vegetables a day (a serving is anything that fits into the palm of your hand) and balance this by adding protein or carbs. A rule of thumb that I follow is to look at my plate and figure 70% to 80% should be vegetable (raw is better) and 20% to 30% protein or carbs. Eating healthy isn’t complicated.
Creating a healthier lifestyle for your family can be a challenge, but sending the right messages to your kids can make the transition easier. Lead by example. Children emulate their parents and if you eat well and abstain from the junk food, they will too. I also suggest that families sit down to talk about the changes they’re willing to make and get everyone’s buy-in. Reassure your kids that you won’t take everything they enjoy away from them. That said, British celebrity chef, Jamie Oliver is a master of preparing healthy food. My daughter lives by his delicious and fast meals that blend flavors from various foods, while meeting the health requirements the body requires. Take a look at this presentation he gave to an audience at TED. It will open your eyes.
Whether your children are seven months or 17, it’s never too late to get your family eating better. The more you can do to prevent disease earlier on in life; the better off your children will be as adults. Besides, we’d much rather be talking about prevention than illness treatment.”
Enjoy the ride … Rob