Americans spend less on groceries than the people of all other industrialized nations. When it comes to our food, we like it cheap and fast — now more than ever. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, our spending on processed foods has doubled since 1982, and today we put more dollars into bags of cookies, chips and frozen dinners than into anything from the dairy, produce or meat sections of the store.
Doing that seems to make our busy lives simpler, but there’s a problem with meals that come from the freezer, out of a box or through a window: “Highly processed foods tend to have fewer beneficial nutrients than whole foods and more added fat, sugar and sodium,” says Michelle Dudash, RD, author of Clean Eating for Busy Families. Out with the nutrition, in with the artificial flavoring.
So how can you help your family ditch the junk food and start eating “real” stuff? Here’s where to start:
Stop Eating Food That Comes Through Your Car Window
Avoiding fast food is a solid place to begin. If you do nothing else to get your family off junk food, just stop going anywhere with a drive-through. If lunch at the office usually means a trip to the double arches, get in the habit of packing a lunch instead. “It’s easy to have dinner leftovers for lunch,” says Dudash. “Make sure you have enough portable containers on hand to take with you. Or take meat and vegetables and turn them into something new, like a wrap or an entree salad over lettuce.”
Make it a family policy to avoid dinners on the go, too. The key to success, says Dudash, is to plan ahead. “Make sure you grocery shop on the weekend or your day off so you have healthy ingredients waiting for you at home,” he says. “Focus on easy family dinners that can be made in advance and even frozen ahead of time — things like chili, lasagna or cold pasta salads.”
Start Reading Labels
By now, most of us know to shop the perimeter of the grocery store to find the healthiest, least-processed food. But other than avoiding the obvious chip aisle, there are a few surprisingly unhealthy products masquerading as good-for-you groceries. “Stay away from prepared smoothies,” says Tina Ruggiero, MS, RD and author of The Truly Healthy Family Cookbook. “The massive serving size makes them a calorie bomb.” She also says that bran muffins from the bakery are essentially cakes without frosting, and that reduced-fat peanut butter has so much added sugar that you’re better off buying the regular stuff — or skipping both in favor of a natural brand made of 100 percent peanuts. Energy and granola bars can be loaded with preservatives and may contain more calories than you think — sometimes more than eating a “real” meal.
Dudash’s avoid-at-all-costs list includes diet soda (which at best has no nutrients, and at worst can erode tooth enamel) and foods labeled “multi-grain,” such as breads, crackers and cereal. “‘Multi-grain’ usually does not mean 100 percent whole grain,” she notes.
Focus On Whole Foods
Start by prioritizing. “Decide what you’re willing to commit to and keep those ingredients on hand,” says Dudash. “For example, if you want to get away from boxed rice mixes, keep brown and wild rice on hand, as well as quinoa, plus dried herbs and spices. It’s just as easy to throw all of the ingredients into the pot as making it from the box. Make the switch a gradual process and ask your family what they like. Once you and your family are happy with a few changes and they have become habits, make a few more goals.”
Then sit down and make a plan before you go shopping. “I know I need to pack my daughter’s lunch, cook about three dinners and have plenty of fruit and vegetable snacks, so that is my routine,” Dudash says. “Buy fresh perishable foods weekly, which [makes for] quicker shopping trips. Bring the kids with you so they can pick out healthy foods they want to eat. Make a separate, longer trip on a monthly basis, when you stock up on nonperishables. Go alone and with a plan.”
Make — and freeze — meals ahead of time. “Timing is an issue for everyone, but the key to whipping up healthy and delicious meals during the week is planning — and cooking — during the weekend,” says Ruggerio.
See? Eating healthy isn’t such a big deal. So make the change — you and your family are worth it.