How to Make Healthy Cooking at Home Easy and Fun for the Family - Virtua Health, NJ

How to Make Healthy Cooking at Home Easy and Fun for the Family

By Andrea Schwartz, MEd, D, LDN, CLC, CSCS, NSCA-CPT, Registered Dietitian
Virtua Nutrition 

The research is clear—eating together as a family can have a lasting impact not only on your health but also on your child’s food preferences and eating habits, as well as behavior, academic success, and psychosocial well-being. And, there’s no better time than now to implement a healthy eating routine for, and with, your family.

It takes a little prep—and a little parental courage and patience—but the results will benefit the whole family.

Plan for food shopping

Plan your meals for the week as a family, thinking beyond dinner, as you’re likely eating breakfast, lunch, dinner, AND snacks at home right now.

Then, write your grocery list with what you’ll need for meals each week, including perishable foods and other foods that need to be replenished. Don’t forget to take stock of common pantry items that you might overlook when making your list like milk, flour, pasta, and spices. To keep track, keep a running list of these items on your mobile phone, a notepad, or a white board in your kitchen.

Since you may be shopping less frequently right now, carefully planning your grocery list is essential.

Here’s a quick list of items to get you started.

Fresh foods to buy weekly:

  • Fresh and pre-cooked meat, poultry and fish (can be frozen)
  • Fresh produce, including herbs

These have a longer shelf life, so they can be purchased in larger amounts:

  • Cheese
  • Deli meats (stick with low-sodium, nitrate-free varieties)
  • Eggs
  • Hummus
  • Low-fat dairy milk or non-dairy alternatives
  • Plain non-fat or low-fat yogurt and cottage cheese (or non-dairy alternatives)
  • Tofu and tempeh
  • Whole-grain bread

Keep these pantry items on hand and replenish them regularly:

  • Canned fish like tuna, salmon and sardines
  • Canned olives
  • Canned tomatoes, tomato paste, tomato sauce (low-sodium, low or no-sugar varieties)
  • Cold cereals (look for varieties with at least 5 grams of fiber and less than 4 grams of sugar)
  • Condiments like mustard, sriracha, hot sauce and vinegar
  • Dried beans
  • Dried fruit (without added sugar)
  • Dried herbs and spices and sun-dried tomatoes
  • Dried whole grains like quinoa, brown rice, buckwheat. and millet
  • Frozen fruits and vegetables
  • Frozen whole-grain waffles and pancakes
  • Hot cereals (preferably without added sugar)
  • Jars or tubes of minced or chopped garlic and ginger
  • Nuts and nut butters like peanut, almond, sunflower, or cashew
  • Oils (olive, avocado, canola)
  • Ready-to-eat canned beans (low sodium, if available)
  • Whole-grain flours, including corn meal
  • Whole-grain pastas or pasta made with legumes, which are higher in protein and fiber

Get everyone involved in the preparation

After shopping, get the kids involved in washing and chopping fruits and veggies you’ll need for the week’s menu.

For little ones, give them a metal or plastic dinner knife to chop softer foods like bananas or strawberries. You also can have them use their hands break up bigger pieces of broccoli or cauliflower into smaller pieces. Older kids can work up to using steak knives or paring knives to cut up carrots, celery, onions, peppers, and more. Store items in plastic bags or storage containers until you’re ready to use them for your meals.

To make your life easier, you also can buy pre-chopped foods like sliced mushrooms, cubed butternut squash, pre-washed and chopped lettuce, and peeled garlic. These items may cost slightly more, but the timesaving could make it worth your while. Many grocery stores even have fresh-chopped veggie medleys, or spiralized vegetables, that you can easily add to a meal.

It’s also a good time to teach your kids how to cook and use the stove safely, starting with simple dishes like scrambled eggs or grilled cheese. They might make a bit of a mess cracking eggs the first time but the lessons learned will be invaluable. It’s important to teach microwave use and safety as well, ensuring they know NOT to put metal objects in the microwave, including tinfoil, and how to safely set cooking temperatures and times.

Mix things up to encourage trying new foods and avoid cooking ruts

Remember kids often try new foods when paired with foods they already accept. So when you’re meal planning, make sure to include at least one food each family member enjoys—this can be as simple as placing whole-grain bread on the table alongside your entrée. However, avoid offering alternatives for the main dish as this may send the message that you don’t expect your child to learn to like new foods.

Mixing things up can be as simple as swapping out one main ingredient for another. If your family loves roasted zucchini, next time try roasted eggplant. If everyone loves potatoes, try sweet potatoes or similar root vegetables like parsnips.

While you may feel like cooking has become a full-time job, with these tips you can make it enjoyable for the whole family.

Updated April 22, 2020

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