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Focus on planning for quick, healthy meals
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Many families with both parents working fall into the unhealthy trap of eating too much fast food, but quick and healthy meals can be prepared at home with just a little extra planning.
Melissa Mixon, human nutrition specialist with Mississippi State University's Extension Service, said there are many reasons to avoid resorting to prepared meals and fast food.
"Families should focus on planning when it comes to eating healthy meals," Mixon said. "They need to sit down and think out what their meals are going to be for the next week -- or even two weeks."
Mixon said planning ahead also can serve as a time-saving device for families with minimal time to spend in the kitchen.
"Families can grocery shop for the whole week, which cuts down on time spent in the grocery store. That allows parents more time to spend with their families in other activities," Mixon said. "Another time-saver for busy parents is cooking in bulk and freezing the leftovers for later use. You can make a little bit more of a dish today so that it only needs to be warmed up to eat later."
Manufacturers recognize the need for foods that are quick and easy to prepare, and varieties are expanding exponentially on the grocery shelves. Health-conscious consumers should pay attention to the nutritional information on the packaging and note what is in fast foods.
"Fast food meals can be high in fat, high in sodium and high in calories," she said. "They also can be a drain on the budget -- eating out can become quite expensive over time."
Mixon said another drawback of fast food meals is that they rarely include fruits and vegetables. They also typically lack calcium.
Keep in mind the Food Guide Pyramid recommendations for a healthy diet, Mixon said.
Developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the recommended daily amounts of each food group are six to 11 servings of bread, cereal, rice or pasta; three to five servings of vegetables; two to four servings of fruit; two to three servings of milk, yogurt or cheese; and two to three servings of meat, poultry, fish, dry beans, eggs or nuts each day. Fats, oils and sweets should be used sparingly.
"You should eat according to the food pyramid, using it as a base for planning meals," Mixon said, adding that eating according to each food group's placement in the pyramid is key to healthy eating. "Remember that the tip of the pyramid is really supposed to be the smallest part -- because too much fats and sweets can contribute excess calories to the diet."
Parents of picky eaters are presented with additional problems due to the lack of options from which they can choose. The nutritionist offered several tips for these parents:
- Set a good example -- "Sometimes if you have a picky parent who won't touch the broccoli, the child sees that and follows that example," Mixon said.
- Multiple exposure is key -- "Sometimes a child needs to be exposed as many as 21 times before he or she will eat the food. A picky eater needs constant exposure to a variety of foods," she said.
- Listen to your child -- "Children are good at regulating their food intake; if they're full, they won't eat any more," Mixon explained.
- Don't contribute to the problem -- "If the child isn't eating well at meal times, avoid giving a lot of snacks between meals," she said.
- Hide foods -- "Incorporate carrots or zucchini in a favorite casserole or bread," she said. "Or try putting extra dry milk in a sauce to expose the child to more calcium."
- Think positive -- "Don't lose track of what the child is eating," Mixon said. Parents should encourage their children to continue eating the foods they like that are also good for them.
- Get them involved -- "If children are old enough, get them involved with planning the meals," she said.
"The most important thing is to set the example by trying new foods," Mixon said. "Focus on planning; initially it may take time to sit down and plan out those menus, but once you get the hang of it, it will become easier and easier."
Mixon said the beginning of a new year is a perfect time to establish habits that will provide a lifetime of good health. Among her tips were to become more physically active; eat according to the Food Guide Pyramid; reduce high-salt, high-fat and high-calorie foods; include more fruits and vegetables; and avoid dieting.
"Instead of traditional dieting, which is something you go 'on' and 'off,' we need to strive to be healthy every day," she advised.
For additional information or nutrition tips, contact the local county Extension office or visit the Extension Service website at http://www.msucares.com/.