Parents strive to serve their kids a variety of healthy foods, and going to the grocery store is an important step in this process. The items we put in our shopping carts week after week can boost kids' health — and give them a positive attitude toward nutritious food.
But those tempting displays of tasty snacks and fruity drinks can make it easy to end up with a cart overloaded with stuff that doesn't offer much nutritional punch.
These tips can help you keep the focus on healthy options when you're navigating the aisles:
Make a List
A list can keep you on track — especially if you base it on a meal plan for the week. Focus your week's menus on wholesome, nutritious ingredients such as fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables, lean meats and poultry, fresh fish, whole grains, and low-fat diary products.
Experts suggest that families with kids keep these guidelines in mind:
Eat vegetables and fruits every day.
Limit juice intake.
Use vegetable oils (especially ones high in monounsaturated fat such as olive and canola) and soft margarine low in saturated fat and trans-fatty acids instead of butter, shortening, or most other animal fats.
Eat whole-grain rather than refined-grain breads, cereals, pasta, and rice products.
Restrict sugar-sweetened beverages and foods.
Use nonfat or low-fat milk and dairy products daily.
Eat more fish, especially oily fish that is broiled or baked.
OK, fruits and veggies are on your shopping list. What else? Consider adding these staples:
Meats and beans: Fish (fresh and frozen, also canned light tuna and salmon); lean chicken and turkey (no skin); lean hamburger and beef; pork chops. Non-meat choices include soy products, dried beans, nuts and seeds.
Grains and cereals: Whole-grain bread, tortillas, pasta, cereals, oatmeal, brown rice, bulghar (cracked wheat), barley, and quinoa.
Dairy and eggs: Low-fat or nonfat dairy products, including milk, yogurt, cheese, and calcium-fortified soy milk.
Follow a Healthy Path in the Store
If you shop in a grocery store, focus your shopping on the store's outer aisles. These usually contain the healthiest foods — produce, dairy products, and fresh meat and fish.
Next, move to the inner aisles, where you'll find important items like canned and frozen fruits and vegetables, cereals, sauces, and baking supplies. But those inner aisles also contain more expensive and less healthy prepared foods and snacks. By visiting the inner aisles later in your shopping trip, you reduce the chances that you'll overdo it on snacks and processed foods.
When possible, visit farmers' markets and produce stands in your area for the best that local growers have to offer. The recent growth in "farm-to-city" groups means that farmers bring their produce directly to you and that more produce stands are now open in local neighborhoods.
Food co-ops are another good source of healthy food because these member-run organizations tend to buy organic or pesticide-free produce, and work with local growers to provide the freshest food possible. Health food and specialty stores also can be worth the extra trip to find a wider variety of foods and brands.
Wherever you choose to shop, it pays to know the time of year that your favorite fruits and vegetables are in season. Buying in-season produce is often a bargain in taste and reduced price. But try not to buy more than you can use or store before it spoils.
A good way to teach your kids about seasonal produce is by visiting a farm, orchard, or berry patch where they can pick the fresh goodies themselves.
When you don't pick it off the vine yourself, how do you know produce is fresh? From green beans to cantaloupe, all fruits and vegetables give hints about their ripeness and freshness:
Choose vegetables that look fresh and colorful. Most should be crisp and firm. Don't buy vegetables such as green beans, for example, if they're limp or showing signs of decay.
When choosing fruits, avoid bruised pieces, but remember that a perfect exterior doesn't necessarily mean the best quality. The best cantaloupe, for example, will have a yellowish cast and may be misshapen, but it will smell pleasantly sweet.
Careful storage means that fresh produce will last longer. Some vegetables will keep in the refrigerator for 2 to 5 days; others, including cabbage and root vegetables, like carrots, will keep even longer. Store potatoes and onions in a cool, dark place for maximum freshness.
Frozen and Canned Fruits and Veggies
Fresh produce is delicious, but frozen and canned fruits and vegetables are convenient. Spoilage is much less of a concern, and high-quality brands will rival fresh produce when it comes to taste and nutrition. One study found that dishes prepared with canned ingredients were just as appealing as ones that contained fresh or frozen produce.
Whether frozen or canned, you'll want to check the label to see what you're buying. Some frozen vegetables, for instance, are packaged with extra salt and fat. Instead, choose products without any sauces or additives. With canned fruits, look for varieties that pack the fruit in juice, not syrup.
And just as you wouldn't buy fruit that's bruised, don't buy a package of frozen vegetables if the bag is ripped or the box is soggy or torn. With canned products, watch out for any can that has a large dent, a swollen appearance, or is leaking.
Make Room for a Treat
As you focus on a healthy lifestyle for your family, you might be tempted to ban snacks and treats. But completely eliminating sweets and favorite snacks can backfire — if kids feel deprived, they might overeat off-limits foods when they're not home.
Instead of taking a hard line or completely giving in, aim for moderation. Try not to talk about "bad foods," and let your kids choose an occasional treat at the grocery store or at home. A child who likes chips and dip, for instance, could choose a lower-fat bag of chips and a jar of salsa at the store. Then when you get home — olé! Put out small bowls of chips and salsa and it's snacktime!