Are you trying to eat healthier but having difficulty getting the whole family on board? If so, you’re not alone.
As a registered dietitian, I’m acutely aware of the challenges that families face.
From stress and busy work schedules to budget constraints and limited food accessibility, many obstacles can get in the way of healthier habits.
Plus, family members may not always agree on what to eat.
Parents following a specialty diet may eat differently than the rest of the family. Tantrum-prone toddlers may refuse to eat at mealtimes while crossing their arms in disgust. Teenagers might stop at the drive-through on their way home from school and skip the family dinner.
While it can feel overwhelming, with a mix of careful planning and a willingness to be flexible, it’s possible to get your family on the same page with healthier habits.
Here are 16 realistic tips for eating healthier as a family.
1. Let go of perfection
Despite what social media may have you believe, there’s no perfect way to eat healthier.
This means that your meals don’t have to be expensive, complicated, time-consuming, or picture perfect.
Instead, it’s important to be realistic and do the best you can to help your family make healthy choices.
Plus, by taking off the pressure to have a perfect diet, you’re more likely to find a healthier way of eating that works for your family.
2. Avoid labeling foods as off-limits
While some ingredients are certainly more nutritious than others, it’s important to foster a healthy relationship with food by avoiding language like “bad” or “off-limits.”
Plus, being too restrictive can create stress and tension around mealtimes.
Instead, take this advice from Aubrey Redd, MS, dietitian, and owner of Aubrey Redd Nutrition:
“Don’t treat any food as off-limits. All foods can fit into a healthy lifestyle within moderation. Consider using the language of ‘always’ foods and ‘sometimes foods. Fruits and vegetables are always a great option for snacks, but you only have birthday cake sometimes when it’s someone’s birthday.”
3. Make healthy eating about wellness, not weight
Not only are diets inappropriate for children, but discussing body weight in front of kids can lead to disordered thoughts and behaviors around eating.
Rather than talking about the calorie or fat content of food, focus on its benefits, such as how it tastes or the nutrients it provides.
Similarly, make a point to speak with your kids about loving your body and treating it with kindness. After all, hearing positive talk from parents can help build and sustain a healthy body image and self-esteem in kids.
4. Keep meal planning simple
Meal planning is a great time-saving strategy, as you only have to go grocery shopping once or twice during the week. However, deciding on which recipes to make can be tricky.
While there’s a time and place for trying out a fancy new recipe you found on Pinterest, it’s best to stick to simple meal ideas during the week.
In fact, Yaffi Lvova, registered dietitian and owner of Baby Bloom Nutrition, recommends avoiding “new or complicated meals on busy days,” and keeping “two to three backup meals in the freezer or pantry in case of a hiccup in the day’s plan.”
One way to streamline the process is by basing meals around what you currently have at home. In addition to saving you time and money, using what you have on hand reduces food waste.
Another tip is to make meal planning a collaborative process by keeping a sheet of paper or a dry erase board in the kitchen to create a running list of meal ideas that the whole family can contribute to.
Tired of making the same meals every week? Revisit old cookbooks that may be gathering dust in the basement or attic and bookmark recipes that you’re interested in making as a family.
5. Make meal prep a priority
One of the most common hurdles I hear from families is a lack of time to prepare home-cooked meals and snacks.
While it may seem like a large time commitment, setting aside an hour or two to prep a batch of meals and snacks can actually save you time during the week.
The first step toward making meal prep a priority is examining your schedule and blocking off a designated meal prep time.
Edith Yang, RD, SR, CLT, mom of two and owner of Healthy Mission Dietitian, recommends something she calls 1-2-3 prep: “Dedicate 1–2 hours one day to prep one easy protein, two fruits, and two to three veggies.”
In practice, this could look like setting aside time on Sunday to make a batch of oven-baked chicken breasts, a large fruit salad, and a sheet pan of roasted zucchini and tomatoes.
You also don’t have to do all the work yourself.
Try splitting up meal prep responsibilities among family members or ask for help from a friend or family member to spend time with your little ones while you and your partner have a meal prep date together.
Also, consider investing in an air fryer, slow cooker, or rice cooker to reduce the amount of time you spend cooking.
Finally, there’s no shame in meal prep shortcuts like buying precut fresh or frozen produce, microwavable whole grains, or a cooked rotisserie chicken.
6. Eat together
Eating together as a family — without distractions — has numerous benefits, including encouraging healthier eating habits, promoting bonding, and aiding social and emotional development (1Trusted Source).
Furthermore, studies show that kids of families that eat together tend to eat less fast food and more fruits and vegetables (1Trusted Source, 2Trusted Source, 3Trusted Source, 4Trusted Source).
There are benefits for adults, too. One study found that parents who participate in family dinners have higher levels of self-esteem and lower rates of depression and stress (1Trusted Source).
While it may not be realistic to eat together every night, try to make family dinners a priority as often as you can.
Here are some tips to encourage a distraction-free meal:
- Make the dinner table a no-phone zone.
- Engage in conversation around the table by asking fun, thought-provoking questions. For example, if you could have any kind of animal for a pet, what would it be and why? You can also take turns, having each family member come up with a question.
- Give each family member a task, such as helping with cooking, setting the table, or doing dishes.
7. Incorporate more fresh, frozen, or canned vegetables
One of the easiest ways to eat more vegetables is by incorporating them into meals that your family already enjoys.
For example, if Friday is pizza night, set out a variety of vegetable toppings, such as chopped peppers, mushrooms, spinach, artichokes, fresh tomatoes, and basil, for each member to use as pizza toppings.
By using veggies in place of highly processed meats like sausage and pepperoni, you can easily make pizza night healthier without going too far out of your family’s comfort zone.
Joby Neelankavil, RDN, shares another great way to add vegetables to meals, saying, “I add minced veggies to ground meat dishes. This stretches out the meat into several servings and adds nutrients and fiber.”
This tip is especially helpful if you have picky eaters at home.
Worried about the cost? There are many ways to save money on produce.
For example, seasonal vegetables are often less expensive and better-tasting than out-of-season selections.
Frozen veggies are another great option, as they’re just as nutritious as fresh veggies, yet they have a longer shelf life. Plus, frozen vegetables cook quickly and come in bulk, making them more cost-effective.
Finally, if you have limited access to fresh products or are looking for another budget-friendly pick, canned vegetables are also a healthy choice. Just be sure to look for low sodium or no-added-salt options.
Examples of canned vegetables to keep on hand include carrots, beets, diced tomatoes, pumpkin, corn, and peas.
8. Optimize vegetables for snack time
If you have the choice between chopping up vegetables for a snack or grabbing a bag of chips, convenience will likely win out.
Encourage your family to snack on vegetables by having washed and cut options ready to go in the fridge. Simply slice the veggies into sticks or strips and store them in clear containers, such as mason jars.
This way, the vegetables are easily visible and quick to grab. You can even place a nutritious dip, such as salsa, hummus, or yogurt, next to the jar of veggies for a complete snack.
Josten Fish, RD and dietitian at Dietitian Meets Mom, especially likes this tip before dinnertime, as munching on fresh veggies is a nutritious way to curb your family’s hunger.
9. Make one meal for the whole family
It can be tempting to keep family members happy by preparing more than one meal at dinnertime. I see this most often in households with picky eaters.
For example, while the rest of the family is eating a casserole, one child might have a sandwich or a bowl of cereal.
While it may seem easier in the moment, eating the same meal is important for getting your family on the same track with healthier habits.
However, it doesn’t mean that you have to force your kids to eat foods that they dislike.
For families with picky eaters, Caroline Thomason, a self-proclaimed “not your average dietitian,” recommends “serving dishes by deconstructing them.”
She adds, “For example, when making taco bowls, serve all the ingredients separately and have each member construct their own bowl assembly-line style.”
Similarly, rather than plating food for each family member, serve meals family-style so that each person can pick and choose what and how much they want to eat.
If you have an infant at home, you may be thinking about how to include them in the family meal as well.
For babies over 6 months, simply purée or chop foods that you’ve prepared into appropriate consistencies based on your child’s development.
Just make sure to introduce only one new food at a time to help identify potential food allergies or intolerances.
If you have any questions or concerns about the types or amounts of food to feed your baby, make sure to talk with your pediatrician.
10. Serve foods in new and exciting ways
A great way to get kids — and even adults — to eat healthier snacks is by presenting a variety of foods in new and interactive ways.
For example, rather than placing one snack option in a bowl, put together a snack tray or board. You can also maximize the nutritional value of the snack by providing options from multiple food groups.
If you want to include dips, such as hummus or peanut butter, serving snacks in a muffin tin is a fun way for kids to mix and match different flavors and textures.
Here are some examples of foods to include:
- apple slices
- mandarine orange segments
- sliced strawberries
- dried cherries
- sugar snap peas
- cherry tomatoes
- baby carrots
- bell pepper slices
- steamed edamame
- cheese slices
- lightly salted almonds or cashews
- pretzel thins
11. Say goodbye to the clean plate club
For a healthy relationship with food, it’s important for kids to be able to recognize their hunger and fullness cues.
Therefore, while it’s understandable to want your kids to eat well and thrive, pressuring them to finish their plate or eat when they’re not hungry compromises these healthy biological cues.
To reduce power struggles at meals and encourage mindful eating, I recommend following the Ellyn Satter approach: Parents choose which foods to offer and when, and children decide how much or whether they want to eat.
12. Avoid using dessert as a reward
It’s not uncommon to promise a dessert in exchange for your child eating their vegetables.
However, Dana Peters, MS, RD, and owner of Dana Peters Nutrition, explains that using sweets as a reward “sets up the mentality that some foods are better or more valued than others.”
While desserts shouldn’t be used as rewards, they can still provide a fun and delicious way to add more nutrients to your family’s day.
For example, some nutritious options include grilled fruit kabobs, watermelon cubes dipped in a homemade yogurt dip, or sliced strawberries topped with whipped cream.
Also, keep in mind that as all foods can fit into a healthy lifestyle, traditional desserts like ice cream and brownies can also be enjoyed from time to time.
13. Opt for more plant-based proteins
Eating more plant-based foods has been associated with numerous benefits for your health, as most are rich sources of beneficial nutrients, such as fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals (5Trusted Source).
Plus, many plant-based proteins are shelf-stable and more affordable than animal-based sources.
Examples of plant-based proteins to add to your shopping cart include nuts, seeds, beans, lentils, tofu, and edamame.
Not sure how to incorporate these foods into your family’s meals? Here are some ideas:
- Swap half of the chicken in your stir-fry with tofu. You can also omit the chicken altogether.
- Use chickpeas in place of meat in your family’s favorite soup or stew recipe.
- Swap out mayonnaise with hummus on sandwiches and wraps.
- Top your oatmeal with walnuts and fresh or frozen berries.
- Add a tablespoon of flax or hemp seeds to your smoothies.
14. Eat whole grains at breakfast
Due to their nutritional benefits, it’s recommended to make half of your grains whole (6Trusted Source).
As refined grains are commonly found in foods like cereal, pancakes, and muffins, breakfast is the perfect time to add more whole grains into your day.
Easy ways to incorporate more whole grains in the morning include the following options:
- whole wheat toast with peanut butter and banana slices
- quinoa porridge topped with nuts and fruit
- a smoothie with oats, yogurt, and frozen fruit
- whole grain breakfast cereals
- brown rice with veggies and an egg
Also, consider keeping white whole wheat flour at home for making waffles, pancakes, or muffins.
White whole wheat flour is a softer form of whole wheat that’s just as nutritious, making it a great option for picky eaters.
Plus, it can be easily used in place of all-purpose flour in most recipes. Just make sure to store white whole wheat flour in the pantry or freezer to prolong its shelf life.
To make breakfasts easier throughout the week, I recommend making large batches of whole wheat pancakes or muffins and storing any extras in the freezer.
15. Make your own flavored drinks
While it’s important to drink enough water, sometimes you need something a little more exciting.
Get the whole family involved in making healthier beverages at home by combining seltzer water with a few ounces of 100% fruit juice.
Making your own beverages is a fun way to cut back on drinks that are high in added sugar — the major cause of tooth decay in children in the United States (7Trusted Source).
16. Grow your own food
Another great way to get the whole family eating healthier is growing some of your own food.
Plus, you don’t need a large backyard to do it. You can grow several types of vegetables and herbs inside or in small pots on a balcony or patio.
Additionally, some areas offer community gardens that you can sign up for.
Whether it’s a small basil plant in your apartment or a raised garden bed in your backyard, growing food is a great way to save money while also growing your kids’ interest in fresh foods (10Trusted Source).
The bottom line
While it requires some trial and error, eating healthier has countless benefits for the whole family.
Just remember to think positively and encourage healthier habits without being restrictive or adding pressure.
By taking it one step at a time, you’ll find that it’s possible to find a healthier way of eating that’s both realistic and sustainable for your family.