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The Busy Families' Guide to Healthy Eating

Three families share their biggest nutritional dilemmas and experts bring easy, doable tips to your table.

By Daryn Eller

Real Stories
family eating apples
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Jen Fariello
Photo by Jen Fariello

Feeding your family wholesome meals should be fairly simple. But throw in two working parents, loads of extracurricular activities, and -- dare we say it -- too many food choices, and this task becomes as complicated as the plot of Lost. Just ask the Millner, Brugo, and Alper families, who told us about their nutritional obstacles -- everything from fueling up on the fly to satisfying a picky eater. Experts then weighed in, offering simple dietary strategies that will not only improve the way everyone feels on a daily basis, but also set up the kids for a lifetime of healthy habits. Here are their stories.

The Millner Family -- Charlottesville, VA Meal-Skippers: The Challenges
family grocery shopping
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Jen Fariello
Photo by Jen Fariello

While the Millner children -- Joli, 8, and Kai, 7 -- have a nourishing breakfast and are sent off to school with healthy snacks, their parents are less successful on the nutritional front. Sharon (a speech pathologist) and Jamal (a musician), both 35, are always on the move. Though she's eager to lose a few pounds, Sharon often misses breakfast and grabs vending machine goodies -- animal crackers or granola bars -- in lieu of lunch; Jamal skips meals as well, consuming the majority of his calories at night. Take-out dinners have become the norm for this busy family. "While we try to make wise choices, we aren't doing so consistently," says Sharon. "And the kids are eating more fast food than I'd like." She's also concerned that Joli isn't getting enough protein in her diet.

The Solutions
family packing lunch
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Jen Fariello
kids walking to school
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Jen Fariello
Photos by Jen Fariello

The Feedback

Bonham's advice has paid off for the Millners. "I've lost 5 pounds, and Jamal has dropped 7, and we're not dragging during the day," says Sharon. "He and I have been packing our lunches, and we 'make the time' to eat during the day." She's also found some easy dinner recipes, which have helped the family curb their take-out habit on the nights she works late.

The Brugo Family -- Upper Brookville, NY Snack Happy: The Challenges

The Brugos are no nutritional slackers. In recent years they've switched over from refined starches to healthier whole-grain foods like whole wheat couscous, quinoa, and brown rice. Rather than serving meals family-style, Jenny, 41, controls portion sizes by preparing everyone's dinner plates in the kitchen. What poses the biggest challenge for this family? Snacking. Given the chance, her husband, Christopher, 43, and their kids -- Lara, 16, Caroline, 13, and Graham, 10 -- will empty a box of cookies or bag of chips in one sitting. Jenny, who runs a drapery business from home, also needs a healthy yet portable snack to boost her energy while she drives the kids to and from their after-school activities. Graham's lack of variety is also a concern for Jenny. "He could live on tuna fish and cookies," she says.

The Solutions
family eating outdoors
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Cheryl Zibisky
Photo by Cheryl Zibisky

The Feedback

Jenny's thrilled to have reined in the between-meal munching. "Now if I buy a large bag of cookies or box of whole wheat pretzels, I'll break it down into small sandwich bags before the kids can get their hands on it," she says. Having after-school snacks at the ready has also been a success. "I used to see them sit down with a knife and a hunk of cheese," says Jenny. "Now they've gotten used to individual-size portions and more variety."

The Alper Family -- Leucadia, CA Convenience Eaters: The Challenges

With two fit parents -- Rob, 41, surfs and Terri, 38, plays volleyball -- and two soccer-playing daughters (Megan, 15, and Madeleine, 10), the Alpers are always on the lookout for meals and snacks that will fuel them for their extracurricular workouts. While not necessarily junky, some of their favorite foods -- processed soups and juice drinks, for example -- are a little light in vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Another healthy-eating obstacle is the fact that Megan and Madeleine are extremely picky eaters. "They basically like peanut butter sandwiches for lunch, and pasta with butter, Parmesan, and boneless chicken breast for dinner," says Terri. Their reluctance to try new foods has definitely contributed to the family's nutritional rut; they hit the Mexican taco stand around the corner several times a week. "We probably go there too often, but the food is filling and the girls will eat it" she says.

The Solutions
happy family
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Colette DeBarros
Photo by Colette DeBarros

The Feedback

The Alpers have begun to integrate more nutrient-dense foods in the mix, such as whole wheat pasta and spinach, and no one has complained yet. They particularly like Harrison's advice to get the girls to try one new thing each week -- which is making it easier to serve everyone at once. "We've had some good results," says Rob. :"Last night Madeleine finally put a piece of cheese on her burrito!"

5 Family-Friendly Foods

Having a few healthy and delicious items on hand at all times can make a hungry brood happier -- and your life a lot easier. Some staples to stock up on:

  1. Edamame (whole soybeans), served shelled or in the pod, make a great protein-packed snack or side dish (and cook up in five minutes), says Kris Bonham, RD.
  2. Baby carrots and grape tomatoes. "They deliver lots of nutrients in a little package and make packing lunches a breeze," says Bonnie Taub-Dix, RD.
  3. Sharp cheddar cheese (made with 2 percent milk). It's half the fat of regular cheddar but tastes rich and still melts well.
  4. Natural peanut butter (or almond or cashew). It tastes more like roasted peanuts than the regular type -- but without the hydrogenated oils.
  5. Whole wheat tortillas or wraps. "These are a good alternative to bread, and they make sandwiches exciting again," says Andrea Harrison, RD.

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