When you start the adventure toward better family nutrition, you may find the task a little daunting. What should you buy? How do you encourage children especially to eat well-balanced meals? There is a little psychology involved in this process, and it begins with getting everyone involved.

Let’s take shopping as an example. With younger children, giving them specific tasks promotes a sense of confidence and self-worth. So why not talk to them about your food selections and have them put things in the cart. How do you know which package of strawberries to choose, for example (showing them ones that are mushy or moldy vs. ones that look fresh and bright). After providing an example, have a child pick the family’s package for that week. Alternatively go to a local farmers market where you can pick out individual fruits and vegetables. That gives your entire clan the chance to try their hand. This process works with older children by showing them how to read and understand ingredient labels. Remember the phrase: If you can’t pronounce it, you probably don’t want to eat it!

Continue the process of involvement at home too. Have your kids sort and put away the food properly. This is a great opportunity to teach them about safe food handling. Get everyone’s clean hands into helping with meal preparation and service. Talk about your choices in oils, flavorings, etc., but try not to turn cooking into a lecture. Food should be fun, especially if it is healthy.

Speaking of meals from a nutrition standpoint, breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Leave enough time for it, particularly with your children who may not be “morning people.” According to John Hopkins, a good breakfast provides energy, improves concentration and actually helps your child maintain a healthy body weight. Experts also recommend creating a consistent family dinnertime when practical. According to the Early Childhood Research and Practice, that routine gives the whole house a rhythm that help children at school, particularly for transitioning from one activity to another.

Mealtime is the perfect moment to give your children water, juice or low-fat milk. Water is incredibly important to their health and yours. This time is also an opportunity to try introducing new, healthy foods. They might not like everything, but if it’s a natural part of your dining experience, kids are less likely to balk at it.

Around the home keep fruits and vegetables readily available as snack food. Studies show that the more often a child sees veggies with hummus or fruit and cheese, the more likely they are to eat them. This also avoids having kids randomly rummaging in the kitchen and potentially spoiling their appetite for a well-rounded dinner.

In terms of food choices, use items lower in fat. Decrease sugared or sports drinks, and go light on the salt. Alongside making smart decisions about what you eat, remember that nutrition coupled with exercise makes a great marriage. Get everyone taking walks, playing outdoor games or even helping with housework. Then at the end of the day make sure both you and your children have a solid sleep ethic. Rest is part of the larger picture of maintaining good health.

If you have readers in your family, consider getting some age-appropriate books on nutrition (ones that feature favorite characters are particularly valuable, but see what piques your child’s interest). By offering a book, you remove some of the pressure on you as a parent to verbalize all the reasons for X, Y and Z (which often comes across as nagging). You might sit and read with them, and ask engaging questions. Honestly some of these books have great information for parents too.

Set goals that can be fun too, with the family involved. I recommend having a dinner plan for the week so that you can find healthy recipe exchanges for your family’s favorite dinners throughout the week that everyone will love. I have many tested and picky family-approved recipes on my blog. Even with the most picky, processed-food loving family members, small exchanges will make huge differences in how your family looks, feels and functions day to day.

Truthfully maintaining family nutrition isn’t overly difficult once you get into the habit. Its like your daily vitamin; you just start doing it naturally. The more instinctual those patterns become, the more likely your children are to mirror them in their daily lives. In turn, you are setting them up for better health long into their adult years.

Amy Light Ramage is the owner of Fit for Excellence LLC and runs a gym called Fit Warehouse near the intersection of Monroe and 7th streets in Oregon City.

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