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. However, with obesity rates rising worldwide, healthy eating should be a priority for us all.
Mumsnetters often ask how they and their families can eat more healthily, 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? Katie Hipwell, Senior Nutritionist at weight management company Almased UK, 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 – and Almased UK’s Senior Nutritionist, Katie Hipwell, fully agrees.
“It's a good idea to know in advance which meals you want to prepare,” says Katie. “This way you can choose healthy recipes and any essential ingredients can be included in your weekly shopping list.”
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.
“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."
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,” says Katie.
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.
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,” advises Katie. “Also, ensure that 50% of your meals consist of vegetables.”
“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 poster 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, and not too much sugar-heavy fruit that is far more than one 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 developing high blood pressure, cholesterol and heart disease, 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.
“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.
“Always choose vegetables or salads as a side option and use high-fat, high-sugar condiments sparingly,” says Katie.
“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.
“Be mindful of the suggested serving size on packaging and choose foods that consist of mainly green or amber traffic lights,” advises Katie.
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.
“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 red meat has health risks. Namely, it can increase your risk of developing bowel cancer.
As always, the key is to eat a well-balanced diet. You can do this by reducing your intake of red and processed meat 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,” suggests Katie.
Mumsnetters rate vegetarian lasagne, using lentils as a plant-based alternative to minced meat.
“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 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.
Whilst 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,” suggests Katie.
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 five.
“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!” says Katie. “Examples of healthy snacks are trail mixes (dried fruits, seeds and nuts), homemade low-sugar granola bars, protein balls, kale or vegetable crisps, homemade houmous with raw veggies, hard-boiled egg, lightly salted popcorn, fresh berries with natural, low-fat yogurt.”
“Snacks are life. Boiled eggs, houmous and pitta/carrot, bananas, almonds/peanuts, dark chocolate, greek yoghurts and oven baked veggie chips with salsa.”