Take one busy family with no time to spare but a nagging sense they could be eating better. Add a dietitian’s advice and go shopping.
By Liz Pearson
Most days, Isobel Gifford is up by 5:30 a.m., walks the dog and runs 5 km before getting ready for work. Her husband, Lance, rises an hour later and wakes nine-year-old Kate and twelve-year-old Jamie; he and Isobel help them organize what they need for school and whatever other activities they have that day. Both parents are usually out the door by 8 a.m., heading for their downtown offices after they drop Kate at her school’s daycare — where she’ll hit a pre-season track practice (Jamie walks to and from school on his own). By 6:15 p.m., everyone is usually home, tired and hungry. While they’re doing better than many families on the fitness front, the Giffords are paying a price, with little time for preparing healthy, balanced meals.
That’s where I came in. My assignment, as a registered dietitian, was to give their food shopping and eating habits a makeover based on their fast-paced life. The Giffords provided me with their grocery bills over several weeks, as well as a food diary listing everything they ate for 10 days. I reviewed the data and made copious notes. Then Isobel and I headed to the supermarket. We toured each aisle equipped with my list of suggestions for healthier meals in a hurry.
Walk by the Krispy Kreme donuts at the front door. Fortunately, Isobel had no problem following this advice.
Isobel was on track here, choosing a whole roasted chicken as her dinner of choice. She also steered clear of the high-fat chicken wings, quiche and fries. I pointed out the ready-made bean salads as a great choice for brown bag lunches at the office.
Isobel was in the habit of picking up whole wheat bread for herself and Lance, but buying white bread for the kids’ lunches as well as English muffins — a favourite of Jamie’s. Since whole grains provide so many benefits (including a significantly lower risk of heart disease, diabetes and some cancers), I urged her to make them a family affair. To get Jamie and Kate on board, I suggested buying several brands and letting them do a taste test to choose their favourite. Isobel wondered whether muffin mixes were a good idea. Because it’s almost impossible to find 100 percent whole-grain muffin mixes, I prefer making a double batch of homemade whole-grain muffins on the weekend and putting them in the freezer to use throughout the week.
Other than an occasional purchase of summer sausage, Isobel was good about buying mostly lean cold cuts like ham, turkey and chicken.
Isobel and her husband like fish; her kids don’t. My suggestion: Keep serving it! It’s important that children learn to enjoy fish, especially those like salmon and rainbow trout that contain healthy omega-3 fats. Frozen fish fillets are also perfect for busy families since they cook in minutes.
Isobel puts fruit in her kids’ lunch boxes each day and serves vegetables at dinner. We agreed that prewashed, pre-bagged salads are a great time saver. Darker greens, such as spinach or “spring mix” salads, are the most nutritious choice, but salads made with romaine (which her kids prefer) are always a better option than iceberg lettuce. Colourful produce — like broccoli, berries, sweet potatoes, cantaloupe, green and red peppers, mangoes, carrots, oranges, kiwi and asparagus — offer the most nutrition. Isobel questioned the nutritional value of fruit leather like Fruit to Go. My response: It’s a much better choice than products like Fruit by the Foot and Fruit Gushers, which offer little in terms of nutrition. (The healthier products, including FruitSource are generally found in the produce department and contain 2 g of fibre per serving plus at least 5% of recommended daily intake of potassium.) However, choosing whole fruits and vegetables most of the time is still your best bet.
Like many shoppers, Isobel assumed fat-free salad dressings are the healthiest. In fact, light or low-fat are better options because fat enhances the absorption of certain nutrients and plant compounds. Because Isobel is the first to admit she’s not an enthusiastic cook, I suggested she experiment with ready-made sauces and marinades. They’re great for easy stir-fries and adding flavour to chicken breasts, fish fillets or lean cuts of meat. Look for lower-fat options with 200 mg or less of sodium. I use President’s Choice Memories of Mum’s Kitchen Soya Ginger Sauce to make quick and delicious chicken fajitas.
Rather than having just margarine or jam with their toast or bagel at breakfast time, I suggested that Isobel and Kate add peanut butter for a more balanced meal. Choose brands like Skippy that contain no trans fats. Rather than ordering fast food on hectic nights, serve peanut butter sandwiches with a glass of milk and a piece of fruit.
Knowing that most regular chicken nuggets are high in fat (including nasty trans fats), Isobel wondered if President’s Choice Reduced Fat Breaded Chicken Strips are a better choice. Absolutely. Other good options are Jane’s Chicken Breast Nuggets and the new President’s Choice Mini Chefs Jungle Buddies Breaded Chicken Nuggets. Other than an occasional meal of ribs, Isobel stayed away from fatty meats like sausages, bacon and chicken wings. I encouraged her to stick with lean chicken breasts and buy “loin” and “round” cuts of meat such as pork tenderloin, sirloin steak or eye of round steak, since they are the leanest. Lastly, rather than buying frozen burgers that can contain more than 30 g fat each, I recommended leaner options such as President’s Choice Thick & Juicy Lean Beef Burgers with 12 g fat. I also suggested giving veggie burgers a try.
Jamie loves good old pasta with tomato sauce. Isobel sometimes adds extra-lean ground beef — a much better choice than regular, which can be a major source of saturated fat. The meat helps kids get more of the iron and zinc they need. As in the bakery, I pushed whole grains again: Catelli now has a wide range of whole-grain pasta products, and many people find they actually prefer the taste.
Isobel buys skim milk and low-fat yogurt — both good choices. But when it comes to cheese, the Giffords, like many families, find the taste of low-fat varieties unappealing. I suggested giving “light” cheese a try — the label should read 18% MF (milk fat) or less. Light varieties have about one-third less fat than regular cheese, but still taste good.
I also reminded Isobel that mini-yogurts, yogurt tubes and yogurt drinks are fun, healthy choices for kids. For adult-type yogurts or mousses, look for those that are low fat (3 g of fat or less); in addition, the label should say a serving meets at least 15% of daily calcium needs and contains active bacterial cultures. As for margarine, Isobel buys brands that are non-hydrogenated and low in saturated fat — this is good.
The Giffords eat too many meals out of a box, from lasagna to pizza. While some frozen dinners are healthier than others, almost all are loaded with sodium. Isobel was surprised to see that one serving of Stouffer’s Macaroni & Cheese — which Lance and Jamie enjoy — contains almost 1500 mg of sodium per serving (most of us should limit sodium to 2300 mg for an entire day) and 21 g fat (half of which are the artery-clogging kind).
One way to avoid eating out of a box is to plan meals at the beginning of the week. Like all of us, Isobel and Lance were familiar with this advice and were trying to plan at least a couple of meals ahead. I emphasized that it needn’t be a big job; we’re talking two minutes, while you jot your grocery list, to decide what you’re going to eat for dinner Monday to Friday. Lean cuts of meat or chicken, fish fillets, frozen veggies and pre-bagged salads are all quick and easy.
When you do buy frozen dinners, remember that those with lean chicken or beans are generally healthiest (see tips for label reading below). When buying pizza, choose thin crust cheese or veggie pizza. Lastly, many frozen dinners should be served with extra veggies on the side, a piece of whole-grain bread and a glass of milk for a more balanced meal.
Most kids today need a lunch box makeover — Kate and Jamie were no exception. Foods like potato chips and Jos. Louis snack cakes don’t belong; they provide too much competition for healthy choices and don’t establish good eating habits long term. Keep them for an occasional treat outside home and school. I steered Isobel to healthier take-to-school snacks: fresh fruit, fruit cups, yogurt and cut-up veggies. Granola bars should be low fat, made with whole grains, and contain at least 2 g of fibre per serving.
Tips for Choosing Healthier Frozen Dinners: