Dan Wilcox, nutritionist and personal trainer at New Leaf Fitness, gives his advice on how to make our family healthier without even trying.
One of the most frequent questions I get from my private clients is what steps they can take to improve the health of their family. It seems like life is getting busier all the time, our jobs are more demanding and family life increasingly hectic by the day. It's easy to take our eye off the ball when it comes to the nutrition and eating habits of our families. Over the last 50 years the time taken per day to prepare food has decreased (Smith LP, 2013). People consume more food prepared away from the home than ever before, due to our busy schedules and the ease and accessibility of pre-prepared food. But before looking at the food we consume, we should look at how we use meal planning, preparation and how we consume food as part of a healthy routine.
Here are three easy and evidence-based changes to help make your family healthier:
1. Meal Planning
Meal planning seems like just another job in the endless number of tasks to do around the home, but we should make time to do it. Not only does it save money and minimise waste, but it has been shown to improve the health of the family too. Now when I talk about meal planning, I'm not talking about planning weeks in advance, but instead thinking about just a few days’ worth of meals at a time. The hardest part of meal planning is having ideas of what to cook, so try making a note of recipes which you and the family might like whenever you come across them – in books, online, in magazines, or in supermarkets – and plan your meals from them. Meal planning has been shown to increase the likelihood of cooking at home (Aubé J, 2011), improve dietary quality (Larson NI, 2006). and increase the quality of the food sources consumed (Aubé J, 2011). Meal planning on a regular and consistent basis has also been shown as a potential tool for obesity prevention (Ducrot, 2017).
2. Involving children in cooking meals
Getting children involved in the preparation and cooking of meals is an opportunity to develop and improve healthy eating behaviours. In a 2014 study, it was found that children who were involved in the cooking of their own meal had a considerably higher intake of vegetables and protein. Involving children has also been shown to increase calorie consumption from the meal, so this could be a useful technique to consider if you feel your child is not eating enough. Preparing meals together has also been shown to increase positive emotions in the child (van der Horst K, 2014).
3. Frequent family meals
Making time to share frequent family mealtimes is significantly related to nutritional health of children. Sharing a minimum of 3 or more mealtimes per week is more likely to embed healthy dietary and eating habits in children. Children and adolescents are also more likely to be in a normal weight range. In addition, sharing family meals has also demonstrated a decrease in disordered eating (Hammons, 2011). There are a possible 21 opportunities per week for ‘mealtimes’ – encompassing breakfast, lunch and dinner – making it easier to achieve than you might first think.
Key Takeaway Points
- Plan meals and snacks in advance
- Encourage children to help in preparation of meals
- Enjoy meals with family and friends - aim for a minimum of three meals per week
Planning, preparing and eating our meals can and should be an enjoyable time full of family interaction, with fantastic positive long-term outcomes for all members of the family. If you are looking to implement any changes, I recommend you keep the changes small, low pressure and easily scalable. For example, if you don’t currently plan your meals try planning one meal a day for a few days; if you don’t currently cook and eat together as a family, try to do so once a week to start with, before increasing it from there.
Dan Wilcox is a qualified Nutritionist and Personal Trainer, and owner of New Leaf Fitness