The word "healthy" on its own is notoriously difficult to define because it means different things to different people, ranging from mood to physical and onto life and death. If we then start considering food and, therefore, nutrition we are really beginning to enter a dangerous and confusing arena where the information is overwhelming and can be passionately argued from all angles.
Unfortunately, healthy eating requires a degree of discipline, something that does not always come easily to us humans. Trying to be disciplined whilst essentially not really understanding the rules is a big ask and often leads many people to give up or, worse, make an effort but fail to achieve you're their target.
There are many tribes to join when it comes to your choice of dietary allegiance, from vegan to vegetarian, to keto and paleo and not forgetting Adkins, raw, calorie counters and South Beachers! Picking one that suits an individual is can be tough, picking one that suits a family is a much tougher task. Should a two year old be on a vegan diet? Should kids be having a Portobello bacon and avocado breakfast sandwich before school? Do parents have time to properly accommodate these lifestyle choices on a daily basis? These are the areas where the passionate arguments may begin!?
How can we make this simple and less stressful for a family? Perhaps more important than what you eat is how much you eat. You could eat the "cleanest" diet in the world but if you eat too much then the results are not going to be positive. A food being "good" for you does not mean you can eat as much of it as you like! If you eat more than you burn then you gain weight. Equally, not eating enough can be as detrimental to health so we find ourselves trying to walk tightrope. Realistically, it is only the very dedicated who can calorie count accurately or keep a food diary. There are lots of visual aids out there for portion control and familiarising ourselves with them helps us head in the right direction. For adults, a portion of meat should be the size of the palm of an adult hand… for kids, the size of a kid's palm. A portion of pasta should be about the size of a clenched fist. Portion sizes are estimated to have increased up to 50% over the past 20 year which has coincided with the obesity epidemic we are now seeing. Deep down inside, we have a good idea of what is a healthy portion and what is not and adjusting our diets appropriately can make significant improvements to our family's health.
But we also need to consider what we are eating. Everyone has their own philosophy but for me, I like this: The simplest guide for building a healthy meal is to aim to fill half of your plate (and not one the size of a man hole cover!) with fruits and vegetables, one quarter with unrefined carbs, and one quarter with a lean source of protein. Nutritionist advise optimising calories; eating colourful foods and reducing our intake of processed and refined foods. If your lifestyle or training is demanding then supplements may also be a consideration but these should be supplementary (as the name suggests) to a good diet.
Finally, we need hydration. The guidelines for drinking water (not sugary drinks) are for 6-8 glasses per day…. or two litres… or half a gallon. However you measure it, it is more than I manage to drink so I basically work on the theory that I constantly need to drink more!
So there we have it, don't eat too much, eat a good combination of real food and wash it down with lots of water. Simple. But in the context of healthy family eating there is more to this story.
Healthy family eating is not just about fuelling our bodies, it is much more important than that. In the context of the family, everyday eating is about teaching our children about what they eat and helping them to develop a positive relationship with food.
Meal times should be a pleasure shared by the family. In today's society, it is not always easy to eat together but we should take the opportunity whenever we can, it can be lunch instead of dinner and it doesn't have to be every day… but each time counts and has a positive impact. Meal times should be enjoyed and don't need to be a battle of negotiation. There are heaps of strategies that can be enlisted to ensure mealtimes are battle free… and none of them should involve bribing with dessert which send all sorts of negative food messages to our kids. Child nutritionist argue that the best way for kids to build a positive relationship with food is to be fed 3 healthy meals and 2 snacks per day… and then pretty much leave them to get on with it. The parents role is to provide healthy food, the child's role is to decide what and how much to eat. There are loads of techniques to be used at the dinner table but this division of responsibility is a great place to start.
There is a wealth of research on the positive impact of eating together as a family with results including a reduction in child obesity, improvements in performance at school, better language and conversational skills, less depression, more motivation and less likely to use recreational drugs. What's not to love off that list!?
How we act and eat at the dinner table has a huge impact on the health and wellbeing of the whole family and a positive environment where adults set the example to their children is critical. Mealtimes should be stress free, allowing kids to develop relationships with food that are free from anxiety or pressure, this is especially important as psychologists argue that psychological and emotional state actually impacts our physical ability to optimally digest food. The example that we set comes both through what we eat and what we don't eat. We have to remember that kids are watching us all the time… like it or not. We need to be aware of this and consider what we messages we project… is bread really the devil? Do we want our kids to think that bread is the devil?
A holistic approach family eating can give kids a big boost in all areas of their lives but it is not an entirely selfless act. The effects on parent's health and wellbeing are also significant. Households who eat together, or at least eat the same food albeit maybe at different sittings during the week, spend less time cooking. Preparing a kids meal and a parent's meal is all too common these days and takes time and leads to bad food choices for all the family. Shared eating experiences should also reduce stress and help form bonds within a family, this might not happen overnight it does happen over time, meal after meal.