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5 Weeks to Healthy Eating

Excerpted from The Moms' Guide to Meal Makeovers

Have you ever run across one of those diet and nutrition books that tell you what you're not supposed to feed your family or make you feel guilty every time your child eats red meat, dairy, refined white flour, sugar, or salt? While the advice may be well-meaning, it's often downright ridiculous!

Let's get a few things straight. To be a Meal Makeover Mom, you will not have to recite the health benefits of niacin and zinc, nor will you be required to plant an organic vegetable garden in your backyard. Improving your family's diet doesn't have to be time-consuming or complicated. In fact, it can be a lot of fun. You just need a starting point.

Not Perfect, But Better

According to research from the USDA, most children between the ages of 2 and 9 eat a diet that "needs improvement" or is "poor." In fact, only 36 percent of 2- to 3-year-olds and less than 20 percent of 4- to 9-year-olds eat what the USDA would consider a "good" diet. It's easy to see why. At mealtime, children are more likely to eat French fries than any other vegetable, and most school-age kids don't eat anywhere near the recommended minimum of five servings of fruits and vegetables a day. Today's youngsters consume half of their daily calories from fat and sugar, thanks in part to fast food and soft drinks. In fact, on average, children get 10 percent of their daily calories from fast food alone. Okay, you get the picture.

So where do moms begin? Well, for starters, we suggest you take small steps toward positive change. To do this, we advocate diet additions and trade-offs. Here's an example of an easy addition: Instead of banning frozen chicken nuggets from your household, you can still offer the nuggets, but now you'll be sure to also offer a vegetable or fruit on the side (see No-Nonsense Nuggets, page 276, and Moms' Best of the Bunch, page 54). For a healthy trade-off, swap the soda pop your family may be drinking with dinner with a fizzy mixture of 100-percent fruit juice and seltzer. If your family's diet is currently at "not so good," consider working your way to "not perfect, but better." Take it slow -- one week at a time. Once you nail down one change, move on to the next. By the end, you'll have five new food habits to smile about.

Week One: Add One Extra Serving of Fruit Each Day

  • Most kids love cereal and will devour a big bowlful before heading off to school in the morning. This week, offer a serving of fruit first. When kids wake up and they're good and hungry, they'll gladly eat half a banana, some orange slices, or a small bowl of berries. One fruit serving down, and then you can offer the cereal to complete the meal. If your children don't mind their food all mixed up, you can also toss a handful of berries or sliced bananas right on top of their cereal.
  • As a change of pace from milk and cookies after school, make a naturally sweet fruit smoothie instead. In a blender, combine a cup of 100-percent fruit juice, 1/2 ripe banana, a handful of frozen strawberries (or any frozen fruit, for that matter), and 1/2 cup vanilla or fruited lowfat yogurt. Whip it up, pour into two or three separate glasses, and serve with a few whole grain crackers or graham crackers on the side.
  • Children eat lunch at school about 180 days a year. If you pack their lunch or snack, add some fruit. Try grapes, sliced strawberries, cubed melon, a whole apple, or a single-serve fruit cup.

Week Two: Add One Extra Vegetable Serving Each Day

  • If dinner is five minutes away, sit the family down and serve the evening's vegetable as an "appetizer." A few bites of broccoli, sweet potatoes, or crunchy raw vegetables with a salad dressing dip are all healthy ways to start the meal. Janice's 3-year-old, Leah, happily sits in her booster seat nibbling on frozen peas or frozen corn while waiting for dinner. Even though they're still frozen, they're a lot of fun to eat.
  • Hold the chips and Cheez Doodles and instead make baby carrots or grape tomatoes a regular side dish with your child's lunch.
  • Drink your vegetables. In the juice aisle of your supermarket, check out some of the carrot and fruit juice beverage blends. One glass provides a day's worth of vitamins A and C. You can also use this juice for making your own freezer pops.

Week Three: Add One Healthy Beverage Each Day

  • If you send your child to school with a sugary juice drink, switch to 100-percent fruit juice or 1-percent low-fat milk.
  • A 12-ounce soft drink contains the equivalent of 10 teaspoons of sugar and about 150 calories. As an alternative, make your own fizzy creation of 100-percent fruit juice mixed with club soda or seltzer.
  • Bring a plastic water bottle wherever you go for a quick thirst quencher. It will save you money and time when the kids say, "I'm thirsty."

Week Four: Include One Healthy Snack Each Day

  • For a nourishing midmorning snack, offer trail mix with dried fruit and nuts, a squeeze yogurt, or grapes. They're a delicious alternative to cookies and salty chips.
  • If your cookie jar is filled with store-bought goodies -- often made with unhealthy trans fats and a lot of sugar -- make our easy Oatmeal Mini Chocolate Chip Cookies (page 326), Blueberry Snack Cake (page 330), or Our Favorite Chocolate Cookie (page 324) for a super-nutritious sweet alternative.
  • Whenever you head out the door, whether it's to a soccer game or even to the supermarket, be sure to pack pretzels, dried fruit, popcorn, or an all-natural granola bar (read the label and go for the ones with the most fiber and the least sugar) in case the kids get hungry. Being prepared helps to avoid the inevitable visit to the vending machine.

Week Five: Serve One Extra High-Fiber Grain Food Each Day

  • Reevaluate your breakfast cereals and switch from a sugary, low-fiber brand to one made with whole grains, containing 2 or more grams of fiber per serving. Some kid favorites that make the grade include Wheat Chex, Raisin Bran, oatmeal, and Cheerios. And remember, we're not striving for perfection here, so if your kids won't give up one of their sugary favorites, just mix it in with a healthier brand -- you'll be 50 percent closer to your goal.
  • Use 100-percent whole wheat bread and whole grain breads instead of white bread for sandwiches whenever possible. Many of the whole wheat varieties now available have a kid-pleasing soft texture.
  • For a change of pace, use instant brown rice or whole wheat pasta instead of instant white rice or regular pasta. Check out our makeover recipes for Sweet & Nutty Thai Thing (page 178), Southwestern Chicken & Rice (page 292), Mini Meatballs with Whole Wheat Spaghetti (page 232), and more.

Some experts will tell you that high-fat foods are unhealthy and that fat-free foods are the better way to go. In our opinions, nothing could be further from the truth. Some of the healthiest and most flavorful foods on the planet -- nuts, olive oil, salmon, peanut butter, and avocados -- are rich in health-enhancing monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, and we wouldn't give them up for the world. We firmly believe that if fat-free foods were really better for our overall health, then obesity and heart disease wouldn't be as rampant as they are today. Take fat-free cookies for example. Because they can lose some of their appeal when all the fat is removed, food manufacturers often replace the fat with more sugar. The result, ironically, is a cookie that contains about the same number of calories as the original. Since fat-free cookies are often perceived as healthier, people tend to eat more of them and hence consume more calories. Fat-free cheeses are another case in point where less is not necessarily better. We recently experimented with fat-free ricotta cheese for our Squishy Squash Lasagna (page 182). The fat-free version was lacking in flavor and had a somewhat grainy texture. In the end, we compromised and went for the reduced-fat ricotta. We managed to eliminate much of the saturated fat but kept the creaminess.

While it's always our goal to cut the unnecessary calories and as much artery-clogging saturated fat as possible, we would never tell you to eliminate foods rich in mono- and polyunsaturated fats -- the types that promote good health.

Excerpted from The Moms' Guide to Meal Makeovers by Janice Newell Bissex, MS, RD, and Liz Weiss, MS, RD Copyright? 2003 by Janice Newell Bissex, MS, RD, and Liz Weiss, MS, RD. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.