Healthy Family Meals Planning A Healthy Dinner For Every Family Member

Sitting down to a healthy dinner is beneficial for the whole family, especially when the whole family sits down together. Research has repeatedly shown that gathering the members of your family to the same table at the same time is a worthwhile endeavor. Kids who regularly participate in family meals tend to eat more healthfully and perform better in school than kids who rarely sit down to dinner with their parents.

Like many parents, you may have the goal of getting everyone together for mealtimes, but then struggle with what to prepare. Perhaps your grade-schooler only wants macaroni and cheese while your spouse is trying to cut calories. How do you plan meals that your family will eat while still meeting everyone’s nutritional needs? This guide will help you plan healthy family meals for kids, teens and adults that everyone will enjoy and that you will feel good about serving.

Determine Your Family’s Nutritional Requirements

Before you start worrying about what each person prefers to eat, first determine what they need to eat. Nutritional requirements are influenced by a person’s age, sex and level of activity. Preschool-aged children, for example, need sufficient quantities of fat in their diet in order to develop properly. Kids nine and older need more calcium than adults, and an active teen who participates in rigorous sports requires more calories a day than a more sedentary teen of the same age. Girls, once they reach puberty, need more iron than boys.

These cases are just a few examples of how dietary needs can vary. The key is to determine what your family requires in order to stay healthy. Try writing down the name of each family member and then listing what nutritional needs each person has that may differ from those of other family members.

You may also have someone in your family with specific dietary restraints that need to be accommodated. If you or a family member has diabetes, is overweight, has high cholesterol or has a particular food allergy, include that information in your list.

Adhere to the Basics of Good Nutrition

Although each family member may have different specific needs, certain aspects of a healthy diet are nearly universal. When planning healthy family meals, refer to the list you made for each family member while also keeping the following goals in mind:

  • Choose unsaturated fat to cook your food. Fats are essential to brain health, and for making hormones that are necessar for every member of your family. For example, if you are cooking chicken in a pan, use vegetable oil (such as safflower or grapeseed oil) instead of butter.
  • Make smart choices about protein. Protein is important for all family members. For the adult trying to lose weight, protein helps curb hunger. For active kids, protein promotes muscle development. Many sources of protein are also high in iron. The key to keeping protein healthy is to keep it lean. Chicken breasts, tuna, beans and lean cuts of beef or pork provide protein in a meal without adding a lot of fat.
  • Select whole grains over processed grains. This means choosing whole wheat bread over white bread and brown rice over white rice. The whole grains provide fiber and energy. If certain members of your family are reluctant to give up processed grains, try making the swap just a few days a week. Over time, your picky eaters may grow accustomed to the whole grain versions of their favorite foods.
  • Try to include vegetables with every meal. If you are serving pizza, for example, include a salad on the side. If you are barbequing hamburgers, throw some vegetables on the grill too. Vegetables can also be part, or all, of the main dish. If your family likes chili, for example, add generous amounts of mushrooms and peppers to the pot. When making sandwiches, double the amount of lettuce and tomatoes you stack between the bread.

Offer Healthy Dinner Options at Mealtime

You probably want to avoid making a separate meal for each family member. However, you can come up with some simple ways to make one meal customizable so that each person’s needs and preferences are met.

One approach is to offer one main dish and at least one side. If your mother-in-law is trying to watch her waistline, but your teenage daughter is playing soccer three days a week and needs fuel, your daughter may load up on whole grain spaghetti and turkey meatballs while your mother-in-law fills most of her plate with salad. Putting more than one prepared dish on the table immediately gives options to everyone.

Another method is the “build-your-own” type of meal. This could be a build-your-own mini pizza night, with a selection of healthy toppings set out on the kitchen counter for each person to choose from. Toppings like onions, peppers, lean ham and pineapple are all great options for a healthy diet.

Get the Kids Involved in Healthy Family Meals

You will likely find your kids are more excited to eat dinner when they have a role in planning and preparing it. They get to help make decisions and contribute to family mealtime. Teens in particular may want to feel that their food choices are not decided for them.

Cooking and planning meals with your kids is also a great opportunity to teach them about the basics of a healthy diet. Recipes that incorporate healthful cooking styles and ingredients are good ones to pass down to the future generations of your family.

References

Baylor College of Medicine. (2004). How do the daily values found on food labels compare to the nutritional recommendations for children? Retrieved June 13, 2011, from http://www.bcm.edu/cnrc/consumer/archives/percentDV.htm

Mayo Clinic. (n.d.). Healthy diet: End the guesswork with these nutrition guidelines. Retrieved June 13, 2011, from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/healthy-diet/NU00200

Office of the Surgeon General. (2007). Overweight in children and adolescents. Retrieved June 13, 2011, from http://www.surgeongeneral.gov/topics/obesity/calltoaction/fact_adolescents.htm

Parker-Pope, T. (2007). The family meal is what counts, TV on or off. Retrieved June 13, 2011, from http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/16/health/16well.html