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No matter how good your intentions, eating healthily can be a challenge – especially if you lead a busy life and are juggling work, home and parenting duties.
When you’re short of time, it can be easy to fall into a pattern of relying on convenience meals and snacks rather than planning to prepare fresh, nutritious dishes and limiting food waste. However, with obesity rates rising worldwide alongside associated diet-related diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, and 9.5 million tonnes of food waste being produced by households and businesses per year, healthy eating and living as sustainably as possible should be a priority for us all.
Mumsnetters often ask how they and their families can eat more healthily as well as reduce food waste, sharing food tips and nutrition-packed recipes in lots of Mumsnet forum threads.
As a guide, the NHS recommends that you have a well-balanced diet by consuming a range of foods to ensure your body is receiving all the nutrients it needs to stay healthy.
A daily well-balanced diet should include at least five portions of fruit and vegetables, dairy or dairy alternatives, protein – such as beans, pulses, fish, meats and eggs – small amounts of unsaturated oils and spreads, high fibre foods such as pasta, potatoes and rice, and plenty of fluids – at least six or eight glasses a day.
It's recommended that men have around 2,500 calories a day and women around 2,000 calories, depending on how much energy they use.
So how can we incorporate healthier eating habits into our daily lives and make sure we’re being as sustainable as possible while doing it? Nutritionist Dr Emma Williams, Partner & Health Manager at Waitrose, shares her top 10 healthy eating tips for families to try this year.
1. Plan your meals
If there’s one thing many Mumsnetters say is essential for both managing your finances and ensuring you and your family are eating a balanced diet, it’s meal planning.
This way, you can choose healthy recipes in advance and add any essential ingredients to your weekly shopping list as well as make sure you don’t have any waste left over.
Keep the ‘five a day’ guidance at the forefront of your mind when planning your meals and shopping. Aim to eat at least five portions of a variety of fruit and veg every day. They can be fresh, frozen, dried, juiced or canned.
Emma says, “Don’t underestimate the value of planning meals as it can really help you to stick to your goals and ultimately form those healthier habits. If you’ve got the time and the inclination, batch cooking and freezing some of your favourite recipes will really help you to stay on track with healthier choices for when you are short on time.
If you’re also aiming to waste less food, then weave in some meals that use up leftover foods throughout the week. Think roast one day, using up any leftover meat or veg in soups, stews, or curries the next!”
“I have a whiteboard calendar on the fridge where I fill in the month’s meals. I also have a simple Excel spreadsheet with our monthly meals and listing what I have in the freezer/cupboards. I try to shop once a month for meat and 'heavy' items, i.e. tins and frozen food, and only buy fresh weekly/bi-weekly."
“Before going shopping, [ask yourself if there’s] anything that needs to be used up and make sure stuff that is near its use by date is at the front of the fridge.”
2. Limit takeaways and ready meals
When you lead a busy home and work life, it’s tempting to resort to microwave meals or reach for the takeaway menu.
There’s nothing wrong with the odd treat, of course, but the truth is that homemade is always the better option because you know exactly what’s in it.
Cooking fresh homemade meals from scratch means you can control portion sizes and choose healthier, fresher ingredients. Takeaways and ready meals usually also come in lots of unnecessary plastic packaging.
Emma says, “It’s so easy nowadays to create healthier versions of your favourite takeaways by being clever in the preparation and shaving off any unnecessary fat, sugar and salt to make it that little bit healthier.
If you’re a chip fan, choose oven-baked over deep fat frying and sweet potato fries over regular. If you fancy some fish, choose breaded over batter and add some peas for a splash of colour and vitamin C.
When it comes to Chinese or Indian-style dishes, the saucier it is the more calories, fat, salt and sugar it’s likely to have. So why not marinate your meat, fish or plant protein instead? Think Waitrose Cooks ingredients (curry powders, Chinese five spice and the like) paired with brown rice or grains and plenty of veg on the side. If you prefer some pizza, why not have a go at making your own? Healthier toppings are key.”
As Mumsnetters often discuss on our forums, leftovers from your healthy home-cooked meal make for a great second meal the following day, and are a great money-saving and waste-avoiding tactic too.
“Delete takeaway apps and get yourself to the supermarket for decent fresh food.”
3. Practice good portion control
We may be aware of portion control, but that doesn’t always mean that we, ahem, practice it. It can be all too easy to pile your plate with food without giving it much thought and anything you don’t finish could end up straight in the bin.
However, The British Nutrition Foundation advises the following portion sizings: a bunch of spaghetti the size of a £1 coin, measured using your finger and thumb (75g), the amount of cooked pasta or rice that would fit in two hands cupped together (180g), a baked potato the size of your fist (220g), three handfuls of breakfast cereal (40g), and a piece of chicken half the size of your hand.
There are other tips you can try too, such as swapping your crockery. Choose smaller plates and bowls, for example, and ensure that 50% of your meals consist of vegetables.
Emma says, “Good portion control is one of the simplest ways to be healthier. It can mean the difference between eating too much of the more indulgent food choices versus too little of the nutritious foods that can benefit your health.
Think perfectly portioned indulgent treats that you can still enjoy the taste of as opposed to the ‘go larger’ mantra and dialling up on things like fruit and veg, beans, pulses and lentils in your favourite recipes, served up perfectly ‘portioned’ on a plate.”
“Apps like MyFitnessPal or Fitbit food tracker will tell you a portion size for any given food, and you then weigh or measure it to be sure your portion control is accurate and not guessed. There's a very good NHS guide showing what one portion of each fruit/vegetable/pulse is. This is very helpful to make sure you have enough vegetables to call it a portion.”
4. Choose healthier cooking options
Cooking methods such as grilling, steaming, baking or poaching are always preferable to frying. When food is fried, it absorbs the fat from the oils and becomes more calorific. For example, a large fried egg contains 90 calories whereas a large poached egg contains only 72 calories.
Eating lots of fatty foods can increase your risk of heart disease as a consequence of raised cholesterol and high blood pressure. But the good news is that it’s just as quick and easy to grill a piece of fish or meat than deep-fry it.
Stir-frying is also a fast, healthy way to cook family meals. Vegetables stay crisp and retain more nutrients than if they’re boiled and, since stir frying uses minimal oil, the fat content is low.
Emma says, “Simply dialling up on healthier cooking methods and ingredients means you can still have the foods you love but with less calories, saturated fat, sugar and salt. The emphasis being on reducing the offending culprits, and choosing healthier alternatives and cooking methods.”
- Saturated fats for unsaturated fats, choosing more heart healthy polyunsaturated and monounsaturated versions.
- Full fat dairy for lower fat dairy options such as half-fat, reduced fat, skimmed or semi-skimmed.
- Sugar for honey, maple syrup or agave syrup - being sweeter you can use less.
- Salt for herbs and spices or low and no stock and try not to add salt to food when cooking or at the table.
“The easiest healthy meals I do are just some grilled meat or fish (find a few pre-mixed seasonings you like for flavour), one of those microwave rice/grain pouches, and two roasted veg as the sides. Not much thinking, but balanced and gives you all you need.”
5. Be mindful of additional calories
Don’t just plan the main part of your meal – pay attention to the accompanying ingredients too as this can be where extra calories sneak in.
Make healthy swaps. For instance, pair spaghetti with simple, fresh tomato Napolitana sauce rather than cheesy, calorific Carbonara sauce.
You could also exchange garlic bread for crunchy, fresh lettuce, pepper and tomatoes, but don’t fall into the trap of dousing your salad in oily dressing.
Try to choose vegetables or salads as a side option and use high-fat, high-sugar condiments sparingly.
Emma says, “A top tip here would be to dial up on the fibre content of your meals - think brown bread, rice and pasta. As well as adding more fruit and veg, beans, pulses and lentils. These will provide more nutrients, less calories and help fill you up for longer so it’s a win-win situation. Remember that fat provides more calories per gram (9kcal/g) than carbohydrates and protein (4kcal/g).”
“Use tomato based sauces instead of creamy ones.”
6. Pay attention to labels on food packaging
When you’re food shopping, take time to read the labelling on the front of food packages. Some nutrition labels use red, amber and green ‘traffic light’ colour coding to make things simpler.
This nutritional information tells you at a glance if the food has high, medium or low amounts of fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt.
You should prioritise foods that have mainly green or amber traffic light labels. Red on the label means the food is high in fat, saturated fat, salt or sugars. Amber means neither high nor low, and green means that it’s a healthier choice.
Emma says, “The front of pack traffic light label is the simplest way to tell how healthy your food is. We’ve made it easier for you to do this at Waitrose with our Good Health logo, which signposts you to the healthiest choice, including things like five a day, high fibre and whether it’s a source of vitamins, minerals and omega-3. Read the back of the pack to find out more information about the food ingredients, including any allergen labelling. This handy guide to food labelling will help you to understand the label better.”
Also be mindful of the suggested serving size on packaging as this will not only help with portion control but also ensure that the food you buy goes further.
“I usually look at the traffic light system on food labels.”
7. Reduce your intake of processed and red meats
A ham sandwich may be a quick and easy lunch option, but eating too much processed meat – meat that’s been preserved by smoking, curing, salting or adding preservatives – and consuming too much red meat can increase your risk of developing bowel cancer.
It can also have an impact on the environment such as the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, which can contribute to global warming.
As always, the key is to eat a well-balanced diet and to keep your meat consumption in mind. You can do this by reducing your intake of red and processed meat (high in saturated fat and salt) to 70g or less a day, and swapping in low-fat, lean meats such as skinless chicken and turkey along with fish or eggs.
You could also incorporate more low-calorie plant-based proteins such as beans, peas and lentils. Mumsnetters rate vegetarian lasagne, using lentils as a plant-based alternative to minced meat.
Emma says, “You don’t need to cut red meat out of your diet completely as it does provide valuable nutrients. If you are eating far too much red and processed meats then you should think about cutting down. The key here is to think less but better meat. The UK’s Eatwell Guide illustrates how you can have a healthy and environmentally sustainable diet, which is not only good for you but for the planet too.”
“I’m cutting down on ham. Partly for health and partly for the environment.”
8. Don’t drink your calories
You might not give much thought to how your morning latte or Friday night gin and tonic affects your health. However, it’s wise to be clued up about how many calories your mug or glass contains.
A standard glass of wine can be as calorific as a piece of chocolate and a pint of lager has a similar calorie value as a packet of crisps, according to the NHS.
Fizzy pop and fruit juices are crammed full of sugar too, increasing your risk of weight gain and tooth decay. An easy swap is replacing sweetened beverages, fruit juices and sugar-laden speciality coffees for unsweetened drinks, fruit, herbal or green teas.
If you’re an adult enjoying a tipple, limit the number of beers, ciders, and high-sugar mixers you consume. Choose clear spirits with low-calorie mixers and small glasses of wine instead. The UK recommendation is that you consume no more than 14 units of alcohol per week.
Emma says, “Healthy hydration is important (six to eight glasses of fluids per day), but this doesn’t mean topping up on drinks laden with fat and sugar. Ask yourself if you really need that frothy coffee or sugary drink and try to opt for the healthiest choice, which is water.”
“The fact is that the easiest way to cut a large amount of calories is to stop the alcohol.”
9. Eat more high-fibre foods
Starchy carbohydrates – including potatoes, rice, pasta, cereals and bread – should make up just over a third of our diet.
These foods are a good source of fibre or ‘roughage’ which makes us feel fuller, as well as aiding digestion and preventing constipation. A fibre-rich diet is also linked with a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and bowel cancer.
While wholegrain carbohydrates are full of essential nutrients, minerals and fibre, processed versions such as white bread and pasta tend to have less of the good stuff.
Swap white, refined carbohydrates including white bread, white rice, pasta and bagels for wholegrain carbohydrates including wholegrain bread, wholegrain pasta, brown rice, oats, and rye.
It’s worth noting, however, that foods containing a lot of fibre can fill up children’s tummies, stopping them from getting all the calories and nutrients they need. The NHS advises against giving solely wholegrain or high-fibre foods to your child if they’re under two.
Emma says, “When it comes to nutrition, fibre is often overlooked but it’s one of the most important nutrients you can add to your diet. Consuming more than 30g of fibre per day has been shown to reduce the risk of diet related diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease and bowel cancer. It’s the simplest thing you can do today to improve your health so try to weave it in at every single meal.”
“My parents only ever eat brown pasta so I was brought up with it. I prefer white for your everyday hot pasta dishes, but brown pasta is lovely for pasta salad. Brown spaghetti with pesto and cheese is nice. I like brown rice as well – good with chilli, but it has to be basmati with curry.”
10. Don’t give in to the biscuit tin
Poor snacking has the potential to undo all the benefits of you and your family’s otherwise well-balanced diet.
There’s also no getting away from the fact that kids love snacking. No matter your good intentions, it can be all too easy to rely on quick fixes like chocolate bars and packets of crisps when their tummies are rumbling.
However, try to avoid calorie- and sugar-laden snacks when you and your kids feel peckish because they’re unlikely to fill the hunger gap anyway.
As with most things in life, preparation is key when it comes to smart snacking. Preparing healthy snacks in advance will ensure you and the kids refrain from putting your hands in the biscuit tin. Examples of healthy snacks are trail mixes (dried fruits, seeds and nuts), homemade low-sugar granola bars, protein balls, kale or vegetable crisps, homemade hummus with raw veggies, hard-boiled egg, lightly salted popcorn, fresh berries with natural, low-fat yogurt.
Emma says, “You don’t need calorie-laden snacks and treats every single day. A good tip is to try to use the 80:20 rule and only have them 20% of the time (only on a couple of days of the week).”
“Snacks are life. Boiled eggs, houmous and pitta/carrot, bananas, almonds/peanuts, dark chocolate, greek yoghurts and oven baked veggie chips with salsa.”
There are few things more important than the food we eat. It can fuel and nourish – but sometimes it's hard to know what's healthy. That's why we have a Good Health label – you'll find it on food that tastes good, and is good for you too.