It takes time and brain power to plan and prepare a weeks’ worth of family meals. But even after all that work, how can you be sure that everyone at the table is meeting their nutrition needs?
While it’s not your responsibility to make sure every family member eats, it is your job to provide balanced meals. Studies show children will get the nutrition they need when offered a wide variety of foods. But in a world where nutrition advice can be very confusing, what exactly should that variety be?
While there are no strict rules to family meal planning there are “nutrition essentials” that every mom should know about.
1. Have dinner together most nights: Research continues to support the multitude of benefits to family dinners. In fact, a recent study in the Journal of Adolescent Health revealed that the 6th, 7th and 8th graders who ate dinner with their family consumed fewer soft drinks, ate breakfast, were less concerned about their weight and were more confident about eating healthy at home and with friends.
Remember to include your smallest family members in this family ritual. Once babies transition to finger foods, for example, they can eat most of what everyone else is eating. Of course, you’ll have to take into account their ability to chew and swallow certain foods. Cutting items into small pieces will often work.
Why is this important? Any parent of a toddler knows that when pickiness sets in family dinners can be rough. If toddlers are brought to the family table too late, they’ll already be used to eating their “special food.” But if all they know is the family dinner, they’ll be more likely to go with the flow and try new foods.
2. Provide a nutritious variety of fruits and vegetables: To ensure an array of nutrients choose at least one vitamin C-rich fruit and one vitamin A-rich vegetable. Vitamin C fruits (orange, strawberries, cantaloupe – click through to see list) are perfect at breakfast when eaten with iron-rich cereals (C increases iron’s absorption). This is especially important for children under 2 years of age when they are at the highest risk of iron-deficiency.
Vitamin A-rich vegetables (spinach, carrots, kale – click through to see list) are a vital part of a balance diet. If your child rejects green vegetables, try vitamin-A rich carrots, sweet potatoes and cantaloupe until their palates come around.
3. Make half your grains “whole:” Check out my guest blog “7 Ways to Boost Your Family’s Intake of Whole Grains” on the popular www.5dollardinners.com. Basically, make sure that at least half the grains you serve are whole grains. Include whole wheat bread, whole grain cereals and brown rice with meals. Health experts recommend Americans eat 3 servings of whole grains per day.
4. Feast on fish twice a week: The American Heart Association recommends that Americans consume fish at least twice a week. While most people associate fish with heart health, it is also extremely beneficial for brain health. That’s because fish contains the essential omega-3 fatty acids docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) not found in plant sources. If your family doesn’t eat fish then they aren’t getting enough of these powerful nutrients. And kids, whose brains are still developing, especially need DHA and EPA.
If you never serve fish start out preparing it once a week by trying salmon, halibut, shrimp or trout. You can also make tuna sandwiches at lunchtime. Most experts believe the benefits of fish outweigh any risk associated with methyl mercury. Just in case, follow the FDA guidelines to avoid swordfish, shark, tilefish and king mackerel and consume no more than 12 ounces of low mercury fish and canned light tuna (no more than 6 ounces of canned albacore tuna) per week.
5. Provide a variety of protein sources: When planning protein for meals remember 2-2-2 – fish, lean meats and poultry and beans twice a week. Growing children benefit from the easily absorbed iron and zinc in animal proteins. The 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that Americans consume at least 3 cups of beans every week. That includes black, kidney, pinto and garbanzo beans. Beans are packed with B vitamins, iron and fiber and can be included as the main meal or a side dish.
6. Choose your vegetable oils wisely: Emerging science suggests that Americans consume too much omega-6 fatty acids. You see, we evolved from a diet with equal amounts (1:1) of omega 6 and omega 3 yet the ratio we eat today is somewhere between 10:1 and 30:1. Changes in the food supply over the last 100 years have allowed for mass production of vegetable oils like soybean, cottonseed and corn oil all high in omega 6. A diet out of balance can increase the risk of inflammation and chronic health conditions like heart disease.
Whenever possible, cook with olive and canola oil, both relatively low in omega-6 fatty acids. Consider making your own salad dressings or find a prepared one made with olive or canola oil. For more on this subject see 3 Things Most Parents Don’t Know About Omega-3 Fatty Acids.
7. Let them have low fat dairy: Did you know 9 out of 10 children don’t get enough calcium? Low fat dairy products are rich in calcium and other nutrients. 2- to 8-year olds need 2 servings of milk products a day, 9- to 18-year olds need 3 servings a day and 19-50+ year olds need 3 servings a day. A serving equals 1 cup of milk/yogurt or 1.5 ounces of cheese. If you and your family won’t (or can’t) eat dairy consider calcium-fortified juice, soy or rice beverages.
Do I always serve my family perfect nutritious meals? No! But it’s good to have a goal each week when I sit down and plan for the week ahead.
Subscribe to Raise Healthy Eaters for more tips on family meal planning.
Woodruff SJ, Hanning RM. Associations between family dinner frequency and specific food behaviors among grade six, seven, and eight students from Ontario and Nova Scotia. Journal of Adolescent Health. 2009 May;44(5):431-6.