Friday, September 3, 2010

10 Ways to Make Your Favorite Foods Healthier for You & Your Family

by Janis Brett Elspas

Often I write about cooking and healthy living on this blog, especially sharing my experiences with quality time in the kitchen and outdoors with my kids.  For example, there was the post I did about making homemade ravioli with my teen son with a hand crank pasta maker and the one I did about how this blogging mom stays fit while biking with my daughter.   

Luckily, obesity does not run in our family, either.  In fact since I, my DH, and kids are living healthful lifestyles full of good food and lots of exercise already, it's a shame  that this post is the first time I'm writing specifically about how to MAKE the foods my family and I eat healthier.  Nevertheless, I welcome the challenge to tackle this subject today.

Making food healthier does not have to equate with preparing things that are less tasty or appealing to the eye.  In fact, the opposite is actually true and to show you how, here are my personal 10 tips for ways you can make the things you and your kids like to indulge in more nutritious.

1. Decrease or Eliminate Fat Used in Cooking
Always consider either reducing or completely leaving out the greases and oils you use in food preparation.  Experiment with leaving out fat in certain foods, perhaps baking chicken instead of frying it in deep fat.  Another thought: Opt for olive oil instead of corn oil -- without cutting back the quantity of oil you use, your meals will still be delicious while also contributing a lot less cholesterol and unnecessary calories to your daily count.

2. Sneak Some Vegetables Into Kids' Meals
Kids are notoriously finicky about vegetables.  This is due in part to the fact that parents often don't introduce veggies into a child's diet early enough.  But it's never too late to put health back into your kid's meals.  For example, if they love macaroni and cheese you can make it more healthy by not only adding cheese (American, Cheddar, Mozzarella, etc) to the out-of-the-box complete "meal" you buy at the grocery store, you can also make it more colorful by mixing in either frozen peas or even fresh sliced carrots that you have pre-cooked lightly.  My kids call this dish Macaroni & Cheese Confetti and they never seem to tire of it.

3. Do Food Preparation With an Artistic Approach
While we are on the subject of adding color to the foods you serve your family, think of other ways that you can add some pizazz to the dishes you serve.  Things such as bright green parsley and other garnishes help boost the eater's appetite and you can get creative with the way you use it to make almost any food more appealing.

4. Create Foods that are Playful & Fun
Think making little sailboats out of baked potatoes cut lengthwise with a toothpick and triangle slice of American Cheese as the sail.  But remember, this does not strictly apply to when you are cooking for the kids.  Yes, even us adults enjoy playing with our food.  Case in point: who doesn't love a Chocolate Volcano dessert with whipped cream every so often?

5. Mix Things Up Some Unusual Food Combinations
Change things up a bit. Look for recipes that juxtapose unusual ingredients.  To illustrate this, I point to the watermelon, cucumber, and heirloom tomato gazpacho I make in late summer and fall every year when tomatoes are at their peak.  This sounds really weird, I know, but it looks gorgeous and tastes really good.  Actually, it's tomato season now and my kids have been pestering me to make this for them.

6. Don't Be Afraid to Substitute More Healthy Ingredients
Here's another opportunity for even the most challenged cooks among us to get a little creative.  When cooking from a recipe, scan down the list of ingredients it calls for before you begin.  If there's anything listed that you don't like or that is particularly high in calories (or other bad stuff) than try to think of a way to substitute a different item to replace the culprit.  I, for one, usually use Mocha Mix, a non-dairy cream substitute, whenever a recipe calls for cream or half and half which cuts calories and cholesterol astronomically. No math is required, because I use the same amount of liquid when I substitute this.

7. Invite the Kids Into the Kitchen for Some Gourmet Adventures
I've already told you about the blogpost I did about my son and I making homemade ravioli from scratch with an antique pasta maker.  Right now, my daughters are looking forward to cooking with me for the holiday of Rosh Hashanah next week and I'll be blogging about that soon. You should try to get your kids into the food preparation act, too.  Not only will you have quality time with them, but you can help them pick out recipes involving healthy ingredients.  What's more is that because the children themselves take on a more active role in making the food there's a higher chance that they'll be very eager to eat their own cooking, too.

8. Let Your Children Each Choose & Help Cook One Meal Each Week
This is one that we do at our house.  In fact, each kid always looks forward to be being the one to decide (and be "in control")  and cook their weekly request night meal.  With some direction and guidance from a parent on incorporating nutritious items into the menu, you can guide them toward making healthier choices while also providing the avenue toward children feeling of greater self-importance.  They'll think it was all their idea, too, is you make your suggestions gently.

9.  Take Advantage of Produce When It's in Season
I talked above about my succulent Watermelon, Cucumber & Tomato Gazpacho and how it's so good when tomatoes are at their tastiest and also are the most affordable.  In fact, my daughter loves ketchup which shouldn't surprise me since I'm her mother and my favorite produce is tomatoes at the peak of the season.  But, remember, tomatoes are but one way to eat well in-season.  Nearly all produce is very, very good for you and virtually ever other fruit or vegetable is available in more varieties at better prices during certain times of the year. Take advantage of those benefits by being on the look out for recipes in magazines and on the Internet that celebrate their abundance.  It goes without saying that eating peak season produce has got to be one of the best ways to eat like a king on a poor man's budget and get all your nutrients too.

10.  Make Family Dinner Time Mandatory & Sacred
Though this last tip does not exactly make the food itself more healthy, this type of home setting tends to inspire home cooked, well-balanced fare, not fast-food purchased meals.  It's the one thing that is absolutely law at our house.  Ever since all four of our kids (triplets plus one more all born within a year) were toddlers in high chairs and booster seats we have always eaten together for dinner each night.  We continue to make this a priority today now that they are teens.  Actually, I'd rather set a realistic meal time that everyone can partake in than having one or more family members missing at the table because statistically, the family that eats together regularly builds the most solid, long-lasting relationships.  

Speaking of food and cooking. I'm going to finish and push the publish button right now for this blogpost because one of my daughters has been bugging me for the last hour to bake some Cowboy Cookies with her. These cookies, by the way, are the tastiest and healthiest ones my family has ever had because they use raw oatmeal.  So, I better get out to the kitchen now to help her before she burns the whole house down!

How do you make food healthier for your own family?  I hope you'll share all your ideas here with the rest of us in the comment section below.

FTC Disclosure:  I wrote this blog post while participating in the TwitterMoms and WeightWatchers SmartOnes blogging program, making me eligible to get a $50 gift card. For more information on how you can participate, click here.  Also, I'd like to give my son credit for the homemade cheese raviolis pictured at the top of this post.  See complete FTC Disclosure information that appears at the bottom of MommyBlogExpert's main page and at the bottom of every individual post on this blog, including this one.

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