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The Busy Families' Guide to Healthy Eating

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
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Colette DeBarros
Photo by Colette DeBarros

  • Sneak in more nutrients. "The Alpers' active lifestyle gives them some leeway calorie-wise, but they still need to watch the types of fat and amount of salt they're consuming," says Andrea C. Harrison, RD, president of Nutrition at Work in San Diego, California. Cooking with monosaturated fats like canola or olive oil instead of butter, and substituting low-sodium items -- whether soups, ramen noodles, or crackers -- for the salty ones they usually buy can make a big difference. She also suggests switching to more-nutrient-rich versions of their favorites -- a mixed-grain pasta, which boasts more fiber and protein than regular noodles; and shredded cabbage or spinach instead of iceberg lettuce in sandwiches and tacos.
  • Eat for endurance. A good postexercise snack, Harrison says, has a mix of carbohydrates and protein -- both of which can help to replenish muscles. A few that fit the bill: a slice of whole-grain bread with almond butter and sliced banana; string cheese and a small bag of healthy dry cereal; and smoothies made with pure fruit, juice, and low-fat yogurt.
  • Order wisely. Mexican food can be healthy, so even frequent visits to the local taco stand aren't necessarily a problem, says Harrison. But you need to order carefully. Ask that your food be prepared with whole beans rather than refried, skip extras like tortilla chips and sour cream, and go easy on the guacamole (it's a good fat, but the calories can add up quickly). Harrison also recommends that the family expand their eating-out options. "A deli is a healthy alternative when you choose something lean like a turkey sandwich," she says.
  • Broaden the horizons. It's not uncommon for parents to stop trying to introduce new foods as the kids get older. But it's not too late to help Madeleine and Megan expand their repertoire. "Our taste buds change about every seven years, so even teens might learn to love the things they once rejected," says Harrison, who recommends that the Alpers bring one new food to the table each week -- say, asparagus tips tossed into their favorite pasta.

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!"

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