I don’t pat myself on the back for good parenting. Taking credit for my children’s successes means I must bear responsibility for their failures. While I would love to think the “A” my son got on his English essay was due to my nurturing skills and all those books we read to him, I sure don’t want to be held responsible when he consistently wins the award in his college dorm for “Room Most Likely to Grow Random Vegetation by Accident.” So I hesitated to ask my oldest son the question, but I had to know.
“All three of y’all seem pretty happy to eat healthy food,” I began. “Any idea why?”
“Well,” answered my darling son, whose charm is no credit to me, “Your healthy food tastes good.”
Could it really be that simple? Though I hesitate to admit this — because parenting hubris is a sure path to ruin — but maybe it is that simple. My own mother was a bit of a health nut. We ate brown bread and rice before they were cool, she never bought sugary cereals or soda, and she tried to slip wheat germ into fried chicken batter when we weren’t looking. We ate carrot sticks, celery and fruit as snacks, and she read ingredient lists on packaged food before most people knew those lists existed. But wheat germ, no matter how it’s disguised, is not an easy sell.
After I had my first child, I knew I had to eat healthier. The 80-plus pounds I gained during my pregnancy was inspiration enough, but I also wanted to set a better example, like my own mother. I loved fast food, so I would drive until my son fell asleep, pull up to a drive-through, and try to whisper my order, in hopes of enjoying the illicit treat without waking him. Cheeseburger value meals were my dirty secret.
We weren’t ready to switch to healthy meals that looked and tasted far worse than what we were used to eating, so I took it slowly. Steak and mashed potatoes made way for smaller steaks, bigger salads and roasted green beans. Chili with extra cheese was replaced by beans and brown rice, with plenty of delicious Cuban seasoning. Instead of pizza, I made quiche from scratch, with whole wheat crust, and plenty of vegetables. Where meat had taken up the most space on the plate, I tried to make vegetables the star of the meal. Our meals weren’t perfectly healthy, just healthier. Maintaining flavor while ramping up nutrition isn’t as tough as it seems.
The best way to change your family’s diet is one dish at a time, without rocking the boat more than necessary. Make a list of your family’s favorite meals and see how each one could be improved. Here are a few changes you can make right away:
• Add more variation to your favorite pasta meal. Instead of switching to whole wheat, we enjoy our pasta Italian style, as a side dish. If you love pasta as your main course, explore other options, like adding a bag of freshly chopped spinach to your favorite meat sauce.
• Use meat as a seasoning, not the main attraction. Instead of individual pork chops, season a skillet full of navy beans, tomatoes and mustard greens with just enough sausage to meet your need for flavor. Instead of plain meatballs or meat loaf, substitute copious quantities of parsley or spinach for some of the ground meat.
• Families who love Chinese takeout, often heavy on fried dishes and sweet sauces, will enjoy a stir fry made at home, with plenty of veggies and a sauce with less salt and sugar than the commercial versions.
• Try eggplant parmesan, baked with whole wheat breadcrumbs, a little lighter on the cheese, and with fresh tomatoes instead of salty marinara sauce.
• Instead of takeout pizza, make a flatbread pizza at home, lighter on the cheese and piled high with vegetables. This can be a great way to clean out the fridge: take out all the little bits of leftovers, anything you could imagine on a pizza, and set them on the counter, as well as marinara sauce and grated cheese. Hand out individual flatbreads and let everyone make their own. Bake and serve. Points for the most original combo!
• Packaged food offers convenience to busy families, but make sure you know what you’re eating. Often, making things from scratch is far easier than you think. The simplest marinara sauce, for example, can be made in minutes on the stove with chopped, fresh tomatoes, a little salt and pepper, olive oil, and whatever seasonings you like. You can also make your own frozen meals, with very little added work. Next time you make lasagna or quiche, make two and freeze one for later!
• Make vegetables easy. Sure, fresh is best, but if you’ve run out of time, frozen organic vegetables are convenient and can be nutritious. Also, consider freezing your own. Buy more than you plan to use, blanche the extra, and store it in freezer bags, in the exact quantity you need for a meal.