Is getting your family to eat a healthy diet beyond your reach? Despite my insistence on natural, not-overly-processed foods, my kids still love Frosted S’Mores-flavored Pop-Tarts and fast-food burgers. My persistence and their growing awareness of food as potentially wholesome fuel have helped but so have some tips from Tosca Reno. This mother of three shares her approach for encouraging healthy habits in her book The Eat-Clean Diet for Family & Kids. Ideas range from basic (such as drink water, not soda!) to more complex (a 15-ingredient recipe for homemade protein bars). 

Clean Eating, according to the book, involves:

  • Drinking lots of water (2-3 liters per day)
  • Consuming natural, unprocessed foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables, and whole grains rather than grocery items with a long list of unrecognizable ingredients
  • Eating 6 small meals per day, never missing breakfast and combining various types of lean protein with complex carbohydrates at each meal
  • Avoiding refined foods, chemicals, preservatives, artificial sugars, trans fats, etc.
  • Eating healthy fats from healthy oils, nuts, seeds, grains, and fish.

I like to think that I have had good nutrition for many years but Tosca takes eating to another level, not just embracing whole wheat rather than white bread, for example, but espousing the benefits of flax seed for its Omega-3 and fiber power, and more. Though I wouldn't have minded more recipes (there are several recipes in categories such as breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks), I like that Tosca explains the Eat-Clean method, making it easier to adapt to personal preferences. Many of her ideas I have used for a while; others I have recently adopted.

Here's what has been working at my house:

1. Stock my kitchen with healthy convenience foods (easy to buy and serve): fresh fruit (apples, grapes, strawberries, pineapple); raw vegetables (celery, broccoli, cauliflower); healthy nuts (pecans, walnuts, almonds); dried fruit; and rice cakes. Younger kids might appreciate unsweetened applesauce.

2. Bring in brown and toss out white rice, flour, pasta, bread, etc. My kids have been eating whole wheat bread forever. We never really adopted brown rice and whole wheat pasta but I’m trying it again. Mixing brown with white rice, whole wheat with regular pasta is one way of becoming accustomed to the healthier taste and texture. I have to get a head start on cooking brown rice, as it takes 40 minutes or so (unless I use the instant or pre-cooked kind, which is much more expensive). And, upon Tosca's recommendation, I have discovered whole wheat English muffins, which adds a nice, novel texture to sandwiches. 

3. Add (and possibly hide) extra veggies in dishes. A recipe for Smashed Potatoes, for example, includes mashed cauliflower along with potatoes. Another recipe adds cooked and mashed carrots to a tomato sauce for a baked pasta dish. My family could tell that something was different but they didn't seem to mind.

4. Bake healthy snacks. Since my teenage son has been wanting and needing extra protein lately, I decided to try the Applesauce Protein Bars.

The recipe calls for 15 items, many of which I had never bought before (adding a hefty amount to my grocery bill though my supply has lasted for several batches):

  • 1 cup whey protein powder
  • ½ cup spelt flour
  • 2 cups rolled oats
  • ½ cup oat bran
  • ½ cup coarsely ground flax seed
  • 1 tsp. sea salt
  • 1 tsp. cinnamon
  • ½ tsp. allspice
  • ¼ tsp. nutmeg
  • ¼ tsp. black pepper
  • ¼ cup apple butter
  • ¼ cup agave nectar
  • 1½ cup unsweetened applesauce
  • ¼ cup safflower oil
  • 1 Tbsp. vanilla

To make, mix dry and wet ingredients separately, mix wet with dry, and bake in a 9x13 pan for 20-25 minutes at 325.

I had never heard of agave nectar, a low glycemic sweetener (that helps to avoid sugar-induced highs and lows) but found it on my grocer’s shelves; I was also surprised to find the spelt flour and flax seed at a traditional grocery store rather than just at Whole Foods. I did make a couple of substitutions (replaced apple butter that involved slow cooking homemade applesauce for hours with Smart Balance and safflower oil with canola oil).

Though I think it is an okay recipe (my substitution makes it a bit dry), my teenage son loves it and finishes the large pan within a few days each time I have made it.

5. Embrace snack time as a way to encourage a variety of healthy foods. Tosca advocates having 6 small meals rather than 3 large ones daily, so that you and your children will have a steady supply of energy throughout the day (there’s more but that’s the basic idea). I have found that it is often easier and better, energy- and time-wise, for me to have a few well-planned snacks during the day but I also know that this set-up may not be as practical for everyone. Nevertheless, most kids will have some sort of snack during the day; mine often want to eat something around 4 p.m. or 5 p.m., frustrating dinner plans. If they eat veggies and fruit (or protein bars) for an afternoon snack, then it’s not so essential for them to eat 2-3 vegetables with an entrée at dinnertime.

6. Eat natural nut butters rather than commercial peanut butter. I’ve been eating natural peanut butters for a while, after I realized how much bad stuff is in regular peanut butter (my husband’s cholesterol went up when he began eating lots of regular peanut butter as a snack and then way down when we started buying the natural peanut butter). There are many natural options now, ranging from roasted, mashed up peanuts to those with added oil. Since peanut butter may be a staple in many households (though you are supposed to limit healthy fats), it makes sense to buy a good kind of peanut butter or almond butter, etc. for your cupboard.

7. Skip the sugared cereal. Well, if you noticed my earlier pop-tarts reference, you’ll know I don’t always run a perfect, nutritionally balanced household. But, upon Tosca's and friend's recommendation, I have been eating oatmeal with dried cranberries and pecans for breakfast.

8. Realize that your children may not grow to love every fruit and vegetable. Even Tosca's kids don't eat everything. Though I may keep trying to get everyone to sample new foods, I have learned to make sure we have healthy things we like.

9. Bring back the stir-fry! Somehow, in the years from baby food to grown-up food, I stopped making some easy basics such as fresh tomatoes with pasta and parmesan cheese or chicken stir-fry with broccoli. There are lots of exotic oils and marinades now, so I can get good and tasty nutrition.

10. Turn off the television, computers, and other digital devices for family meals. Enjoy your food and your family's conversation. 

Note: I received a copy of The Eat-Clean Diet for Family & Kids in exchange for a book review.