How to Choose Healthier Foods and Drinks
We make countless decisions every day, both big and small. When it comes to deciding what to eat and feed our families, it can be a lot easier than you might think to make smart, healthy choices. It takes just a little planning.
The foods and drinks we put into our bodies are our fuel. They provide us with energy and nutrients—like vitamins, minerals, and proteins—that our bodies need to function and thrive. Research shows that healthy food and drink choices are especially important for children’s growing bodies and minds. Healthy choices have both immediate and long-lasting benefits for you and your family.
“My best advice is for parents to be good role models by eating healthy and being physically active with their children,” says Dr. Holly Nicastro, a nutritionist at NIH. “Keep healthy foods around the house for meals and snacks. Involve children in the meal planning and cooking, and they will be more likely to eat the meals.”
“Parents can begin teaching their children about healthy eating from the day they are born,” says Dr. Donna Spruijt–Metz, whose research at the University of Southern California focuses on preventing and treating obesity in minority youth. “Setting a good example is very important.”
Healthier Choices and Nutrient Density
All foods and drinks can fit into a healthy diet. But when making choices for you or your family, try to choose ones that have lots of nutrients and aren’t too high in sugar, fats, and calories. These include fruits; vegetables; whole-grain cereals, bread, and pasta; milk, yogurt, and other dairy products; fat-trimmed and lean meats; fish; beans; and water.
Some foods and drinks should be consumed less often. These include white bread, rice, and pasta; granola; pretzels; and fruit juices. Others are best to have only once in a while—like french fries, doughnuts and other sweet baked goods, hot dogs, fried fish and chicken, candy, and soda.
“Healthier diets don’t have to cost more, provided that you have the right attitude, make the right food choices, and try to cook at home,” says Dr. Adam Drewnowski, a nutrition expert at the University of Washington in Seattle. With some planning, he says, you can prepare meals that are tasty, affordable, and nutrient-rich.
Get the whole family to help slice, dice, and chop. NIH has developed several resources to help you learn how to improve your eating habits (see the Links box in the sidebar). You might be surprised how easy healthy cooking and snacking can be.
Outside the Home
These days, much of our food isn’t eaten at home. It’s eaten on the go. One easy way to get the nutrients you need is to pack healthy lunches—both for yourself and your kids.
“You can work with your child to make a lunch using whole-grain bread, wraps, or pita pockets filled with lean meats or cheese, vegetables, and nut butters or spreads, such as hummus,” Nicastro says. “Pack vegetables such as carrots, snap peas, and cucumbers or any fresh fruit that’s currently in season. Teens can learn to pack their own lunches with a healthy variety of foods.”
If your kids buy lunch, talk to them about making healthy choices when buying food from the school cafeteria and vending machines. “Parents should encourage their children to choose the important food groups for lunch: a lean protein, fruit and vegetable, whole grains,” Nicastro says. “If a salad bar is available, this is a great opportunity for kids to make their own salad with vegetables, lean protein, and fruit.”
If you have a busy day with your family planned, pack healthy snacks in a small cooler or tote bag before you leave. Consider water, fresh fruit, veggies, and low-fat cheese sticks. Pack small portions of unsalted nuts, whole-grain crackers, or a low-sugar cereal.
Fast-food restaurants can also be a challenge, but sometimes fast food is your only option. At restaurants, use the menu labels and information about calories and other nutrients to make healthier food and beverage choices. Healthy choices can include salads, sliced fruit instead of french fries, and grilled options instead of fried.
When you’re grocery shopping, the Nutrition Facts label is a great resource to help you compare foods and drinks. It can help you confirm whether products marked with healthy-sounding terms really are healthy. For example, “low-fat” foods aren’t necessarily healthy; they can be very high in sugar and calories.
Use the Nutrition Facts label to help guide you to limit the nutrients you want to cut back on, such as sodium or added sugar. You can also use it to make sure you’re getting plenty of the nutrients you need, such as calcium and iron.
When reading the label, start at the top. Look at the serving size. Next, look at the calorie count. Then move on to the nutrients, where it lists the amount and daily values experts recommend.
Remember that what you might eat or drink as one portion can be multiple servings. For example, if you eat one bag of chips but the label says there are three servings in a bag, you need to multiply all the numbers on the label by three to find out how many calories you just ate.
Sometimes it can be hard to find healthy food and drink choices when shopping locally. People in some communities have been working together to make it easier to find healthy foods in their neighborhoods.
For instance, in some neighborhoods, people have joined together to tend community garden plots. “Learning to garden, planting rooftop gardens, box gardens, or small planters can provide some easy growing veggies like tomatoes right at home,” Spruijt–Metz says. “Another possibility is finding a fruit and vegetable truck that would be willing to come to the neighborhood.”
Take time to build healthy eating decisions into every aspect of your family’s life. If you’re a parent or guardian, start talking with kids at an early age about health and nutrition. And practice what you preach. Make healthy food and drink choices yourself so you can set a good example for your kids.
“Food provides our bodies with needed nourishment. Teaching children to read labels while shopping as they get older is a good way to help them learn to shop for healthy foods,” Spruijt–Metz says. “Teaching them to cook simple, tasty, and healthy meals when they’re young is a skill that will stay with them throughout their lives.”