In our burger-and-burrito world, it's no surprise: Research shows most Americans don't get enough of these essential nutrients -- calcium, fiber, magnesium, vitamin E, vitamin C, vitamin A, carotenoids, and potassium. These help keep muscles, nerves, organs, skin and bones -- plus immunity -- in tip-top shape. But these essential nutrients are just the starting point.
"There's a much longer list of nutrients that work together, and all are essential to health and wellness, growth and development," says Kathleen Zelman, WebMD's director of nutrition. "A daily multivitamin provides some of them, but not everything. You need real fruits and vegetables for all their nutrients and for their fiber. You need dairy for calcium."
We asked our WebMD community: What are your secrets for fitting these essential nutrients into your meals and snacks? Do you rely on a few super standards that you know provide more than one nutrient -- like dairy for calcium and magnesium, or beans for fiber, potassium, and magnesium?
Here are their tips and tricks for adding essential nutrients into family meals. Look them over, and keep the conversation going by adding your own ideas to the WebMD message boards.
- We can't get Nicholas to eat any vegetable unless we melt cheese on top -- so he really is getting 2 food groups.
- Yogurt is a fun, sweet "treat" for little ones, and packed with nutrients and protein that they need.
- My little one loves peanut butter, so we give him that on whole-grain bread and he gobbles it up.
- I make pasta with spinach in the sauce, or chopped carrots, to sneak in veggies.
- We went entirely whole wheat in our house about a year ago (wheat bread, wheat pasta, etc.). The girls were so young that now they expect food to look that way. I really think that starting early is key.
- Last night I served cheese manicotti, but instead of doing a filling of just cheeses, I put in a good bit of spinach. That gets more veggies into my toddler. (He's on a veggie strike at the moment.)
- Night before last, I made black bean burgers. It was "hamburgers" without any meat, made with black beans, breadcrumbs, an egg, and salsa. (It's a Pillsbury recipe.)
- Another good way is quesadillas. Just add your favorite veggies along with cheese, or add refried or black beans. Since it's disguised with cheese and tortillas, it works like a charm.
- I like to spread applesauce on top of waffles, toast, and pancakes before cutting them up for my toddler. It gets another fruit in.
- I put peanut butter into my daughter's fruit smoothies so she gets the protein, too. She's sick and congested and not eating much, but she's sucking down the strawberry peanut butter smoothies.
- I put different veggies into the food processor, then add to the meatloaf mix. No one ever knows a thing!!
- My 2-year-old son refuses to touch veggies, so I mix baby food veggies into smoothies, shred veggies into spaghetti sauce, and buy the veggie-fruit drinks (V8 Splash, Naked Monster Juice, etc). Sometimes he'll eat frozen veggies. He loves frozen peas.
- I put the following ingredients into small bowls. My son loves putting them into a whole- wheat tortilla for dinner! Cooked ground turkey seasoned with taco/fajita seasoning, shredded cheddar cheese, tomatoes, romaine lettuce, sour cream, sometimes avocado, fresh salsa.
- Some kids hate milk, but with Connor it was hard for him to consume enough milk. He would drink about a cup a day. We gave him his milk in a cup with a straw. He loved to watch it go through the straw and into his mouth. Worked out great.
- My kids love yogurt, so I use it with everything. For an afternoon snack, I'll mix up some walnuts with plain vanilla yogurt, then let them dip cut-up apples. It's their favorite treat. To get them to eat veggies, I have to use a dip of some sort - and thankfully, they love salsa!
- DD has never had a problem eating, but we like to do fun things. We stick broccoli in mashed potatoes for "trees," or make "faces" on pizza, cookies, and pancakes (using fruit or veggies). Celery with peanut butter builds a house.
- I make crazy, fruity pancakes. I make regular whole-wheat pancake batter and then mix in applesauce and whatever fruit I have on hand, usually bananas and strawberries. My kids love these and so do I!
- I spread peanut butter on a tortilla, then top with sliced strawberries and whole blueberries. I cut it into 4 pieces with a pizza cutter and my kids love it. Sometimes I make it with bananas and slivered almonds.
- My kids love cottage cheese. From the beginning, I have diced up red, orange, or yellow bell peppers and mixed them in. They now love peppers.
- I use graham crackers and strawberry yogurt to make sandwich crÃ¨mes. Wrap in plastic and freeze them for a nice cold treat. You can use low-fat grahams and/or low-fat yogurt, or just plain vanilla yogurt. I also use the chocolate grahams and cool whip (low-fat), to create a chocolaty version of these sandwich treats.
- Ranch dip. My youngest LOVES to dip everything in ranch dip. I can usually get her to eat some healthy things this way. If she can dip it, she'll usually eat it.
Essential Nutrients: You've Got the Idea!
"These are all great ideas," Zelman tells WebMD. "You've got to make nutrition work for you. You've got to make healthy food creative, tasty, fun."
Smoothies are perfect for loading up on essential nutrients, she tells WebMD. "They combine everything you need, like yogurt and fruit. You can use up bananas that are too ripe. All in all, you can tackle a lot of nutrient shortfalls with a smoothie."
She offers a few more ideas:
- Sneak it in. Put veggies on a sandwich. Have a salad before dinner. Eat a piece of fruit instead of vending machine snacks. Wedge that healthy stuff into your diet wherever you can.
- Try vegetable juices. V-8 Splash and others are a great option for people who aren't big on eating veggies. "They're very thick because they have a lot of fiber," says Zelman.
- Plan ahead, shop ahead. If the good stuff is stocked in the pantry or fridge, half the battle is won. To get the family to eat it, make sure it's chopped and ready to eat, she advises. "That's the best way to foster healthy eating."
If your kids crave a McDonald's stop, let them have the burger, Zelman says. But switch out the fries in favor of a healthier option. Good choices: the walnut, yogurt, and fruit salad snack plate -- or yogurt parfait -- or apples with low-fat caramel dip. "It can be dessert. Healthy eating is a matter of changing habits."