The Busy Families' Guide to Healthy Eating

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

Real Stories

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

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

  • Rise and dine. If Sharon is really determined to lose weight, she needs to sit down to a healthy breakfast, says Kris Bonham, RD, a nutrition coach at ACAC Fitness & Wellness Center in Charlottesville. "After even a few hours of not eating, your metabolism slows down to conserve energy, which means you burn fewer calories," she explains. "Eating revs your metabolism back up."
  • Get packing. Although neither Sharon nor Jamal has time to eat an entire lunch at one time, they can portion it out throughout the day — a half a sandwich here, a piece of fruit there. "Small, frequent meals help keep energy levels up and metabolism in high gear," says Bonham. She recommends packing an insulated bag with mini meals — a banana, a serving of homemade trail mix, carrot sticks and hummus — the night before.
  • Make your own food, fast. Rather than relying on pizza and Chinese takeout, the family should shop for ingredients that can be quickly thrown together for a nutritious dinner, says Bonham. For example, keep prechopped vegetables and chicken breasts on hand for an easy-to-assemble stir-fry; Asian noodles that come prepackaged with sauce can be cooked up in minutes with frozen shrimp and prechopped fresh broccoli. Broth-based vegetable soups from the deli are also great to have on hand, as they can be frozen and heated up when needed.
  • Slip in protein. To up Joli's intake of this important nutrient, keep canned beans on hand, says Bonham. They can be served as a side dish, stealthily rolled up into a burrito or stirred into soups and stews. Eggs are also a great protein source; scrambled with veggies and low-fat cheese and served on whole wheat toast, they're a quick and tasty alternative to a fast-food dinner.

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

  • Micromanage the munchies. "By having nutritious snacks at the ready, Jenny can monitor portion sizes just as she does her family's meals," says Bonnie Taub-Dix, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association and member of Family Circle's advisory board. Since the kids are inclined to grab the first thing they see, you can cut up fruit and serve it with individual bags of whole wheat pretzels or low-fat popcorn when they return from school. Another healthy nosh: sliced fresh vegetables with a calcium-rich dip made with Greek-style yogurt (a lighter but still-rich-tasting alternative to sour cream) and a sprinkling of onion or vegetable soup mix.
  • Think out of the box. Taub-Dix isn't one to advocate a sweet-free household — if you don't have treats in your kitchen, your kids will be the first to line up for them at other kids' homes. But she's a believer in buying individual snack-size bags of cookies. "A lot of people argue that they're expensive, but you spend about the same in the end because you won't go through them as quickly," she says. When you're baking cookies from scratch, take out just enough dough to make a few cookies and freeze the rest for future use.
  • Raise the (energy) bar. A nutrition bar is a great grab-and-go snack for Jenny when she's shuttling the kids from the tennis courts to the lacrosse field, says Taub-Dix. But she needs to read labels carefully. "Some manufacturers focus on a single nutrient like protein or carbohydrates." Opt for a mix of 40 to 50 percent carbs, 15 to 20 percent protein and 20 to 30 percent fat — with no trans fats and at least a couple of grams of fiber. "That ratio will provide a greater sense of satiety and keep blood sugar levels stable without upping her calorie tally by too much," she says.
  • Spice it up. While it's good that Graham eats at least one source of protein, a more varied diet would help ensure that his nutritional needs are being met, says Taub-Dix. Unfortunately, he doesn't really like red meat or chicken — at least the way they've been served to him in the past. Her fix: Jazz up an otherwise plain turkey, chicken, or roast beef sandwich with tasty condiments and extras like pesto, pickles, sun-dried tomatoes, or avocado. Graham may be more receptive to other protein sources if they are dressed up with a bit more flavor.

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

  • 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!"

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.