It’s week one of the Take Back Dinnertime Challenge from Real Simple. This week, the focus is on preparing healthy meals. Don’t miss the cookbook giveaway at the end of this post!
What exactly makes a healthy meal? Is it about avoiding extras like fat and sugar or including whole foods more often? While these things do matter — they are only part of the story. In order to maximize healthy meals in your home, it really is about keeping things simple.
Let me show you what I mean.
1. Focus on taste
According to a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, people who were told an energy bar was healthy, were hungrier after eating than those who were told the same bar was “tasty.”
The truth? The word healthy can carry a lot of baggage for some people — especially those who have dieted or have not been exposed to many healthy foods.
And you can bet that kids get the message that healthy and taste do not coincide. I often hear parents tell kids to eat something because it’s “healthy” or “good for them.” Instead, focus on the good taste of healthful, whole foods and avoid making kids eat something in the name of nutrition.
According to The Family Nutrition and Physical Activity Report from the American Dietetic Association, a majority of children said they would eat more healthfully if the food tasted better.
2. Focus on nutrition positives, not negatives
When I talk to people about their diet, they usually start with the list of foods they think are no-no’s. According to The Family Nutrition and Physical Activity Report, families are more aware of what they should not eat than what they should eat.
So instead of focusing on the foods to avoid, get creative by finding ways to include foods that add health and great taste including the items below.
3. Experiment with fruits, veggies, and whole grains
When I first started cooking, I would steam veggies and add little fat. Needless to say, no one wanted to touch them. But then I discovered roasted veggies and it changed everything.
Experiment with cooking veggies whether it be roasting, baking, stir-frying or eating them raw with some dip. Research shows that children are slower to like veggies than other foods so frequent exposure is key. Serve fruit with meals as well — it requires no preparation and kids love it. And don’t forget to experiment with the array of whole grains out on the market.
4. Vary your protein sources
Lean meats are great but there are many other nutritious protein sources. Try cooking beans (black, kidney, garbanzo and pinto beans) more often or include them as a side for dinner. Beans are packed with B vitamins, iron and fiber and Dietary Guidelines recommend 3 cups per week.
Throw some fish in the mix (the main source of omega 3 fatty acids DHA/EPA) whether it’s salmon, shrimp, or good old tuna. And don’t forget nuts and nut butters which work well for last-minute dinners or a kids’ night. Eggs make a great quick dinner too!
5. Use healthy fats to add flavor
Fat adds flavor to every dish — and kids need it. Use healthy oils like olive and canola for salad dressing and cooking. Add nuts and avocado to salads and make guacamole and hummus for dipping.
6. Keep ingredients simple and whole
When I first started cooking I bought Alice Water’s book, The Art of Simple Food, which emphasizes the use of simple and fresh ingredients. At the time I thought cooking had to be complicated with many ingredients so this message was just what I needed.
This is what healthy dinner meals are all about — using fresh, real food. It solves the taste problem and spoils even the tiniest of palates.
For everything you wanted to know about feeding a family, check out Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters From High Chair to High School