MANHATTAN, Kan. -- New Year's resolutions can fade quickly, yet taking stock of the family's eating habits and making even small changes in meals and snacks can improve one´s health, a Kansas State University nutrition specialist said.
Such changes might include introducing more fruits and vegetables, taming over-sized portions, or serving more foods that are lower in calories, fat and sodium, without sacrificing flavor, said Procter, who is a registered dietitian and state coordinator for the USDA's Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program.
Procter recommends adding new foods (or new recipes) without calling attention to them. She explained that a child will typically model a parent's behavior. If a child sees a parent enjoying any food, he or she will usually follow suit.
If a child turns up his or her nose when a new food is served, parents are encouraged to let the snub pass without a fuss and to re- introduce the new food in a different form later. A child who snubs a glass of vegetable juice may not realize it is being re-introduced in spaghetti sauce or a Sloppy Joe sandwich mix, Procter said.
Also, children who shun cooked vegetables often are happy to snack on fresh, cut vegetables with a low-calorie, low-fat dip, she said.
Making sure that healthy foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grain cereals, crackers or bread and low-fat dairy products are available can make choosing them as a snack more likely.
Easing the family away from foods that are high in calories, fat and sodium will take some time --and some tact, said Procter, who recommended 100-calorie snack packs to help children (and others in the family) learn to feel more comfortable with a recommended portion. The snack packs can be purchased or packaged at home using products from larger packages bought at a reduced price.
Doing so also can reduce the temptation to eat chips or cookies directly out of the bag without regard to serving size, she said.
"Making time to gather the family for meals and snacks rather than eating on the run, grazing or while watching television can improve nutrition and health, and also offer stability and encouragement for family members," Procter said.
When a child knows he or she can count on regular meals, parents may note an increase in positive interaction with others and participation in school or pre-school classes and family activities, and a decrease in negative, or anti-social behaviors, the nutrition specialist said.
Infants and toddlers sitting at or near the family table who make eye contact with parents and siblings and listen in to family conversations can have a head start on building vocabulary and literacy skills, she said.
Getting the family together isn't always easy, said Procter, who noted that if scheduling prevents sharing an evening meal, making a point to eat breakfast together or share more leisurely meals on weekends when more time is available, can help to encourage healthy meals -- and relationships.
Using a slow-cooker, or cooking larger quantities and using leftovers can alleviate the pressure in getting a meal together, Procter said.
And, inviting children into the kitchen and encouraging them to learn about food, food safety, nutrition and health and basic cooking skills can be a plus for families.
Children who learn about food typically make better eating choices at home or away from home, she said.
"Start gradually, and make it fun," said Procter, who noted that a healthy family meal does not have to be elaborate.
"Do, however, try to eat a variety of seasonal foods to take full advantage of health-promoting vitamins, minerals, and other compounds, including healthy phyto-(plant-based) chemicals and cancer- preventing antioxidants such foods offer," Procter said.
"Food prepared and eaten at home also is usually lower in calories, fat and sodium," said Procter, who said that eating more meals at home often can help trim the waistline and the food budget.
More information about managing family meals successfully is available at county and district K-State Research and Extension offices and online at: www.ksre.ksu.edu, www.ksre.ksu.edu/humannutrition, www.ksre.ksu.edu/foodsafety and www.rrc.ksu.edu.