Making healthier food choices possible for busy families

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Nutrition experts share tips on how to win the battle

Food is vital to health and well-being but, sometimes, it is easier and more convenient to take the fast food drive through option when time is short and it is not practical to drive home and make dinner.

But, as disease and cancers continue to rise, affecting people of all ages and stages of life, due in part to poor food choices, how can people overcome the hurdles current lifestyles and convenience pose to make a change?

Jacquie Howell, family nutrition educator in Barry and Lawrence counties with the University of Missouri Extension, said there are numerous way to be counter-culture and do just that.

"It's possible, but it takes change," she said.

As part of her duties, Howell speaks to agencies, community groups and school children about making healthy food choices. For instance, on nights when parents know they have to be away from home for a meeting or event, Howell suggested preparing simple meals in advance.

"The biggest thing is to pack food ahead of time," she said. "You can always stick carrots and veggie sticks in with a meal, and kids really like [simple things] like peanut butter. You can put peanut butter and bananas in a whole wheat tortilla, and you've got three food groups. It's a healthy, quick snack. It's so much healthier for kids to eat things like that instead.

"What a lot of parents are doing, on Sunday afternoons, are getting their meals ready for the day, and they can pack it as they go. It takes some prep and planning, but if you know you have something coming up, that provides your family with healthier alternatives."

Howell also encouraged families to buy produce from local farmers and farmers' markets, and keep fresh fruits and vegetable within reach at home, such as a basket of fruit on the kitchen table.

"The less processing the food has gone through, the healthier it's going to be," she said. "That's why fruits and vegetables are so good, because they are in their original form and you don't have to do much to them to make them edible."

For proverbial picky eaters, Howell advised parents to encourage children to try new foods, and even try fun "taste tests," because children's' taste buds actually change as they grow.

"I had good luck with going to schools and doing taste tests," she said. "Almost always, they will at least taste food. I tell kids, 'If you don't like it now, keep trying, because your taste buds change all the time.'"

Using dip with foods may help, too, or combining foods to create something fun, like tortilla wraps.

"Kids love dips," she said.

For a healthier version of ranch tip, Duitsman mixes a packet of ranch seasoning with cottage cheese or Greek yogurt."

Making healthier food choices is a win-win for the entire family, Howell said.

"You feel better, it's better for your health and it tastes better," she said. "We get used to the processing and our taste buds have learned to like the processed food, but once you get used to eating the fresher, less processed foods, you like it better."

Howell said the reward system in schools contributes to poor food choices, and poor eating habits are commonplace in American culture.

"Their incentives are candy or soda pop," she said. "That's not helping them. It needs to be some other type of incentive. I realize it's what the kids want, but there's got to be something else. They should be taught that sweets are a sometimes food, not an everyday food."

Howell said sugar is consumed a lot less in the Hispanic culture.

"The Hispanic culture is a lot different [in what they feed their children]," she said. "They won't eat cupcakes as much, because they're too sweet. When you go to the Hispanic grocery stores, the candy they have is not that sweet, and they rarely have candy or soda pop."

Dr. Pam Duitsman, nutrition and health education specialist with the extension, posed the question to families that if food is so vital to well-being, why substitute real food with highly processed junk foods?

"Most people know that regularly eating junk food is linked to a variety of chronic health conditions, yet many choose junk foods over healthy nutrition whole food," she said. "Food is complex, with many health-promoting substances that go far beyond what can be provided in any other package. It dictates to our cells how to perform, kicks off biochemical cascades throughout our body that turns genes on and off, makes hormones and initiates and maintains endless essential multifaceted biological process. Food also provides taste, pleasure and enjoyment.

"Once we begin choosing the unhealthy options, studies report that we can develop the junk food habit. Neurochemical changes can occur in the brain, driving us to choose more and more junk food."

The key, she said, is creating environments that make choosing healthy foods the easier and more convenient choice, the delicious choice, and the affordable choice.

Planning meals around what's in season is one way to increase access to healthy, affordable food, Duitsman said. To learn what's in season, download the Seasonal and Simple app from the extension website to your smartphone or tablet. The free app helps families with finding, selecting, storing and preparing fresh produce found in Missouri.

"When you choose foods that are in season, you get all the benefits of great tasting food, with health-promoting nutrients, at reasonable prices," Duitsman said.

Starting a community garden is another option.

"Many communities in the Ozarks are benefiting nutritionally, socially, physically, and economically from these school, church, and community-based projects," she said.

To inquire about Howell providing a presentation, people may call the local extension office at 417-847-3161. To download the app or find additional resources, people may visit the extension website at

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: