Healthy Eating Doesn’t Have to Be Hard

Experts offer advice and strategies for making eating better an easy family habit.

From the WebMD Archives

You already know the benefits of healthy eating, and you try to eat well. So what's keeping your family from eating high-quality foods -- a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean sources of protein? And how can you help them eat better?

Here, experts suggest how you can make healthy eating a habit. Plus, they offer tips on how to make it fun for preschoolers, grade-school kids, and teens.

Adopt the Healthy Eating Mindset

We all know that it’s not easy to change. Any type of lifestyle change can be a challenge, says Shelly Hoefs, a certified health behavior coach at Sanford Health's Mutch Women's Center for Health Enrichment, Sioux Falls, S.D.

That's true no matter what unhealthy habit you are trying to shed. Once you've accepted that it's hard, move on and make the changes anyway, Hoefs tells parents.

"At first, change will feel very uncomfortable," Hoefs says. So take baby steps. For instance, if you're trying to cut down on soda and drink more milk, substitute milk once a day for soda at first. ''With the first glass of milk, you're thinking, 'I want the soda,'" she says. "But pretty soon, it becomes, 'This is what I drink at this time of day -- milk.'"

Hoefs recommends thinking of healthy eating as a work in progress. For example: "We used to eat chips and go to fast food restaurants. Now we eat pretzels and eat at home more often."

Overcome the Obstacles

If you're like most parents, a hectic schedule may pose one of the biggest challenges to having your family eat healthy.

"Time is the biggest struggle," says Teresa Beach, RD, community education dietitian at Sanford Health South in Sioux Falls, S.D.

Parents often think that healthy food can't be "on-the-go" food, she says. But that's not true. For example, Beach suggests keeping a snack bin in the car.

"Fill it with nonperishable healthy foods, such as whole-grain pretzels, raisins, and fruit cups," she says. It will help you avoid hitting the fast food drive-through when you pick up hungry kids after school or athletic practice, she says.


A healthy dinner doesn't always have to be hot or home-cooked, Beach says, although parents tend to think so. She offers this hectic-night dinner menu:

  • Whole-grain crackers
  • String cheese
  • Apple slices
  • Low-fat yogurt
  • Baby carrots

"You may think, 'That's not a meal, it's just a bunch of snack foods,'" says Beach. But that dinner includes crucial protein, calcium, fruit, and a vegetable, along with whole grains. Best of all, if you have the foods on hand, it takes less than five minutes to assemble.

Plan for a Healthy Diet

The decision to eat healthier must involve the whole family. And that means that you, as a parent, have to commit to new eating habits, too, Hoefs says. A recent British study found that children whose parents weighed more and had a higher body mass index (BMI) -- weighed more compared to their height -- were likely to have a higher BMI themselves.

Your family healthy eating plan should include specifics on what you want to do -- such as eat more fruit and fewer fries -- and how you will track your progress and reward it, Hoefs says.

Keeping a chart and checking off the action -- such as "I ate fruit today" -- works well, even with adults. Simply seeing the checkmark reinforces that you followed through.

Depending on your family’s preference, you can make the healthy eating transition competitive or cooperative. Either way, Hoefs says, focus on the upsides of why you are making these changes. For example, point out to your teen that he is not feeling a ''sugar crash" after drinking milk rather than soda.

What to Eat? Make It Fun

Healthy eating doesn't have to be boring. The trick is to make it fun and interesting -- and age-appropriate.

Preschoolers: Make sandwiches interesting. Cut whole wheat bread into a star or heart before filling it with turkey or cheese, Beach says. "Get a big whole wheat pretzel and wrap your turkey around that. It's the same as a sandwich, but looks more fun."

Elementary or middle-schoolers: Involve them in the food planning, purchasing, and preparing process, says Amy Jamieson-Petonic, RD, director of coaching at The Cleveland Clinic. "Take them to the store or farmers' market. Get them involved in buying healthy foods and have them help you prepare them."

Teens: Focus on how healthier choices will make them perform better at extracurricular activities, such as athletics, a musical production, or math club. Beach says it's a strategy that can be helpful if a teen is trying to lose weight. For example, if your teen loves soccer but is also working toward a weight loss goal, talk about what types of healthy foods he can choose to boost his endurance for soccer games rather than only restricting foods. Talk about healthy options in a way that makes them relevant to helping your teen today rather than following nutrition rules for some far-off goal.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD, LD on November 14, 2011


Cooper, R. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Oct. 2010; vol 92: pp 946-53.

Shelly Hoefs, certified health behavior coach, Sanford Health's Mutch Women's Center for Health Enrichment, Sioux Falls, S.D.

Teresa Beach, RD, community dietitian, Sanford Health South, Sioux Falls, S.D.

Amy Jamieson-Petonic, RD, director of coaching, Cleveland Clinic, Ohio.

CDC: "Childhood Obesity."

© 2010 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.


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