Help your family develop a healthy eating mindset

Mother and Daughter making muesli

As the UK government publishes its “obesity strategy” to reduce the risk of serious complications associated with Covid-19 I thought I would share some thoughts for families. Food is for joy and good health so If you want some compassionate and non-judgmental support to help you enjoy healthy food with your family, grab a cuppa and read on.

The realities of everyday life are different for each family and you will never have any success if you try to ram the square peg of advice that suits someone else into the round hole of your life. Your Dietitian will be able to help you find unique strategies that will work for your family but the four foundations remain the same. You need to be:

  1. Well informed
  2. Aware or mindful
  3. Organised
  4. Supported

Get well informed

Admittedly this is easier said than done. There is so much controversy around diet and health and new headlines cause confusion everyday. I try to clear the fog in the bite-sized science section of the website. Take a look at some the topics here

The basics of healthy eating are:

  • Eat at least five portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables every day and include a wide variety. If you’re confused about whether fruit is healthy given its sugar content take a look at my article here
  • Include plenty of high fibre foods such as potatoes in their skins, lots of fruit and veg and pulses plus wholegrain foods such as brown rice, wholemeal pasta, couscous, wholemeal bread and unsweetened breakfast cereal.
  • Have 2-3 portions of dairy or calcium fortified dairy alternatives each day. Choose lower-fat and lower-sugar options to keep the calories down. Children under 2 should have full fat milk to ensure they get enough energy, vitamin A and B vitamins. After this you can start to introduce semi-skimmed milk.
  • Eat beans, pulses, fish, eggs, lean meat and poultry to get protein for strong muscles and cell renewal. If you are over 40 try to have good quality protein at each meal. As we get older we are more inclined to break muscle down than build it and we need protein regularly throughout the day to keep our muscles strong.
  • Watch your fat and oil intake especially if you are trying to lose weight. Where possible use low fat cooking methods such as grilling, dry-frying, baking without adding oil or steaming. Use olive oil or rapeseed oil for cooking but remember the calories are the same whether it’s rapeseed oil, olive oil or lard. 1tbsp oil in a dish to serve 4 is a good guide for the right amount to use. Rapeseed oil and olive oil are high in monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA) and lower in polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) than other common vegetable oils. These high MUFA oils are much more stable when heated. Unstable oils tend to produce potentially harmful chemicals when heated so MUFAs are a safer choice. You can find lots more information here. 

Have one or two portions of oily fish every week for those good omega 3 fats e.g. salmon, mackerel, sardines, pilchards. If you or the kids hate fish then try to include rapeseed oil, chia seeds, flax seeds and walnuts for omega-3. I suggest pre-soaking chia seeds for children as they do absorb a huge amount of fluid and in a little person’s gut might make them feel so full that they don’t eat enough overall. The best omega-3’s are found in fish so you might want to consider using a supplement. Talk to your Dietitian to find one suitable for you.

  • Keep added or free sugars below 6tsp/day. See below for more information on this.
  • Drink plenty of fluids – 6 to 8 cups or glasses a day. Grown ups please keep at or below 14 units of alcohol per week (alcohol doesn’t count towards your 6-8 glasses) and everyone avoid those sugary drinks as much as you can.
  • Watch your portions. We have become used to eating very large restaurant style portions and often eat much more than we need. This article from the British Heart Foundation provides some good practical information about how much we should be eating.

Food labels can be a useful source of information but it’s easy to get confused. Here are a few things to look out for:

  1. Added sugars. The side or back of the pack will state total carbohydrates and underneath that carbohydrates as sugars per 100g and usually also per serving (remember this may not be your portion.) We should be sticking to a maximum of 6tsp of free or added sugars each day and a tsp is around 4g. You can get Apps to help you check the sugar content of many foods. For example the NHS Food Scanner App. Remember you need to know the portion you and your family eat to know how much sugar the food will give you.
  2. The traffic light rating for fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt per portion on the front of the pack. We should be looking for foods that are green rated for fat, sugar and salt where possible and making sure we don’t have too many amber rated foods. Red rated foods are really just for a treat. Of course a food may be green for some things and red for others so you need to think about the overall balance in your shopping trolley.
  3. Remember that “light” or “lite” is not the same as “low.” To be labelled “light” or “lite” a food must have 30% less than the standard version of the same product but it may still contain quite a bit of the nutrient in question and the overall calories might still be just the same.

Get more aware

There will always be situations that make healthy eating hard. Explore what these are with your family and work together to develop strategies to overcome the challenges.

For example if parental work schedules mean the family evening meal is quite late you might find that the kids end up snacking too much to stave off hunger. As a result they might end up eating very little at the meal. Perhaps the children could eat earlier and everyone eat together at the weekends or whenever parental work schedules allow. Maybe your child gets home from school and raids the treat cupboard every Tuesday and Thursday causing your temper to flair. This might be because they have PE on those days and burn more energy. Providing a healthy snack for the bus on the way home might help or maybe if it’s possible try to have their evening meal ready soon after they get home.

Get organised

If everyone is screaming for food when you get home from work at 6.30pm but you haven’t planned what you will all eat then of course you will find yourself reaching for the take-away menus.  Your Dietitian will be able to help you develop weekly meal plans and can even do an online shop with you if you think that might help.

Remember that children do need to snack because they have high calorie and protein requirements but quite small stomachs. Having suitable healthy snacks in the car and the house is crucial. To keep costs down buy large packs of nuts, dried fruits and seeds and bag or box them up yourself in small portions. You could even get the kids to help make special snack boxes. Don’t to give nuts to very small children in case they choke.

Cooking from scratch is great whenever you can but work schedules, after school activities and the kids’ social lives can really get in the way. Try cooking family meals in bulk when you have a window of opportunity. Put family sized portions in the freezer to use when you need them. I know some parents who get together to cook and share recipes. This can be great fun and a good way to increase the variety in everyone’s diet.

Get supported

If you are a two parent family whether you all live together or not make sure you are both on the same page before you start with your family healthy eating plan. If Grandma and Grandpa and other special people in your lives can back you up too then all the better.

If family or friends like to bring treats when they visit you could ask them to hand the treats to you so the kids don’t eat them all at once. You could also ask them to bring a special box with their picture on so the children remember who the sweets and treats came from. Even better perhaps they could come with some other kind of treat instead. However this is often a step too far for many.

Of course you will also need to think about school. The habit of taking sweets into school for the children’s birthdays is a huge bug bear of mine. One year I went out and bought a big bag of balloons and 30 pens with a choice of a football or hello Kitty designs as an alternative to sweets. I would love to tell you that this was a great success but it caused such trauma because children don’t like to stand out as being different. It may be worth talking to the other parents and agreeing a list of fun things that children could give out on their birthdays. I suspect once this becomes the norm the kids will quite like it.

School fund raising can be another challenge as cakes always seem to be involved and there are so many events. Remember the PTFA are doing their best to raise funds to make the school better so you will need to give them ideas for non food-based fund-raising. You could suggest filing jars with hair accessories or bouncy balls/balloons etc and selling those instead of the cakes.

So now at least you have some ideas to make a start. But please remember to eat for joy as well as health. From time to time eating a lovely sticky cake with the kids is a positive, fun family thing to do so don’t ditch the baking entirely. For more ideas to fill your joy bank see may article published on Medium here

All families are different so make an appointment with a Dietitian to get a personalised plan to tackle your issues. See my services for families “Explore Family” and “Explore Family Plus” here

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