Eating a diet of mostly whole food -- meaning less food from packages -- can be great for your family's health and well-being. But revamping how you shop, cook, and eat can be a challenge. Here's how to get the kids on board and make a whole foods diet work for your family.

By Tara Mataraza Desmond
Novikov Alex/ Shutterstock

Whole foods diets are going mainstream, and for good reason. Evidence suggests that processed foods contribute to health problems that span generations, including an obesity epidemic among children today. Still, abandoning the heavily processed convenience foods that are part of our culture, and that help us keep up our hectic parental pace, has consequences for the entire family. The good news is, the change is for the better. Read on to learn how to make a whole foods diet work for you -- and your family.

What Is a Whole Foods Diet?

Katie Morford, MS R.D., a San Francisco-based nutritionist, mom of three, and author of Best Lunch Box Ever, explains that whole foods diets are about "moving toward food in its purest form," likening the change to progressing from apple candy to an apple fruit chew to applesauce to a whole apple. It might mean cooking a pot of rolled oats and sweetening it with maple syrup instead of buying a presweetened instant version, or stirring together a spice blend for tacos instead of relying on a high-sodium packet.

People who eat a whole foods diet tend to shop the perimeter of grocery stores, filling their carts with fruits, vegetables, meat, seafood and unsweetened dairy, with stops in the middle aisles for brown rice, whole-wheat pasta, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and natural sweeteners like maple syrup and honey. Moving to a diet based primarily on whole foods means that your family will probably eat less sugar, sodium, and artificial colors and flavors.

To Start, Take Your Time

Stephanie Vuolo, a certified nutritional therapist in Seattle, helps families embrace whole foods diets. "Changing too much at once often leads to failure," she says, suggesting that instead of abandoning your family's usual way of eating all at once, you slowly convert to a healthier lifestyle. For example, you can deplete your current inventory of processed foods and replace them with whole foods and unprocessed snacks, rather than restocking the usual suspects. Although a 10-day whole foods "cleanse" is eye opening and often motivating because it highlights results fast, the stars have to be aligned perfectly for an entire family to embark on such a drastic commitment. Vuolo points out that for kids, slow modifications may be easier to accept.

Pick a Starting Point

Morford suggests picking one or two foods you eat regularly and changing those, instead of overhauling your entire kitchen to the shock of onlookers. Perhaps you can transition from buying hyper-processed, sugary granola bars to another brand that's made with less sugar and no preservatives; then start making them in your own kitchen. Swap in air-popped popcorn for cheese puffs, or homemade salad dressing for bottled. Slowly evolve your shopping habits and consider redesigning by categories like breakfast or snacks. Involve your kids by creating a new whole foods favorite, like homemade granola studded with dark chocolate chips, or watermelon cut with cookie cutters in place of gummy fruit snacks.

Be a United Front

Talk to your spouse or partner about committing together to the changes. If your partner is unwilling to surrender certain foods, ask him or her to indulge in those things at the office or at a restaurant. Ask others who aren't participating in your plans to be respectful of your choices and attempts at improvement.

Trust that if you steer your family toward the best choices by being consistent at home, you can take a step back elsewhere. Morford says she doesn't fuss much about what's available outside the house, but she does try to influence her sphere by making healthful contributions to school functions and activities.

Aim for Improvement, Not Perfection

"Don't let perfection be a roadblock to improvement," says Vuolo, who is mom to a sometimes choosy 4-year-old. Vuolo tries to get parents to set the goal of getting their kids to taste, not necessarily eat, everything, and suggests making it an experience instead of a directive. Have reticent eaters look at, smell, touch, and lick a new food on the road to getting them to embrace it. Keep pleasure in meals and snacks by continuing to offer foods your kids like alongside new things to try. For example, arrange a plate or pack a compartment container with whole foods such as kale chips, carrot sticks, and almonds, plus one of your kids' favorites, like cheddar bunnies, until they come around to eating both.

Making it Work

When you embrace a whole foods diet, you tend to cook and eat more at home, which is less expensive than eating out or on the go. Whole foods mean more nutrient density for your dollar, and they keep you full and balanced longer than processed food. If you're struggling with the shift in costs (processed foods are often incredibly cheap), evaluate where your money is going in other categories (cable, coffee, takeout and delivery) and reprioritize.

Morford points families to bulk bins for nutritious grains, nuts, seeds, and dried fruits. Because there are no packaging costs, these whole foods diet staples can be a bargain. Get to know other inexpensive and convenient whole foods, like bananas, hard-cooked eggs, and raw veggies. Call on packaged products that make life easier while keeping it real with minimal ingredients and little to no preservatives, like Lara Bars, plain yogurt, canned beans, and precut and packaged fruits and vegetables.

At first, as with any new activity, committing to a whole foods diet will take more time. Once you are reacquainted with your grocery store and its products, your shopping will go faster. The same can be said for cooking: Initially, preparing meals and snacks from scratch will seem to take more time. But familiarity means speed in the kitchen, and soon you'll master go-to recipes and techniques, which will cut down on prep and cooking time.

Copyright © 2015 Meredith Corporation.

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