Healthy Eating for Families: the Best Diets for Parents and Kids

Dieting can be a lonely road, especially when you go at it alone. But when you make healthy eating a family affair, lasting success is more likely.

“The best way of eating for families is to eat together,” says Antonette Hardie, a registered dietitian nutritionist at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus. “Creating healthy meals at home and time for everyone to sit together, free of distraction is the best way to create healthy eating habits and relationships with food” that can last a lifetime.

The trick is finding an approach that’s suitable for everyone — from the kids to grandpa. “Most diets aren’t about the family, and that really is a fundamental flaw,” says Dr. David L. Katz, founding director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center and president of the global nonprofit True Health Initiative. “It’s typically an every-man-for-himself scenario, and inevitably, people leave their families behind.”

Healthy Eating for the Whole Family

A family-friendly approach to eating must be safe and nutritionally sound enough to meet the needs of all family members, whether they’re 12 or 72. But “healthy eating is not rocket science,” says Sara Bagheri, a registered dietitian in the population health management department at CalOptima, a community-based health care plan that serves low-income residents in Orange County, California.

“The key is to educate yourselves about what defines healthy eating habits and diet in general, then learn about your own family’s nutritional needs, considering age, activity level, medical conditions and desired goals,” Bagheri says.

That disqualifies low-calorie and super-restrictive diets that skimp on important vitamins and nutrients, like carbs or calcium, as these can’t support the needs of growing kids or older adults who might need extra nutritional support.

Most experts say dieting for weight loss is inappropriate for children, who need ample calories and nutrients. Experts caution against dieting apps that are aimed at kids or teens and say using these can lead to eating disorders.

[SEE: How to Become a Meal Prep Expert.]

What’s for Dinner?

Fortunately, for parents who wish to shed pounds while guiding kids to eat well minus the focus on weight, there are plenty of family-friendly eating plans that accomplish both weight and health goals.

Family-friendly diets should also allow for splurging and negotiation. If a kid doesn’t like fish, for example, it’s OK to substitute a favorite meat.

“The more restrictive it is, the less likely it is to work for a family,” says Katz, who also serves on the panel of experts who rate U.S. News’ Best Diets each year. Likewise, families may find it tough to adjust to plans with unconventional menus, such as the raw food diet, which mandates that food never be heated above 115 degrees Fahrenheit.

Extra points go to plans that are tasty and call for widely available ingredients, rather than those found only in specialty stores.

Though settling on an approach requires research and planning, it’s well worth the work, says Teresa Fung, a professor of nutrition at Simmons University in Boston and also a member of the U.S. News Best Diets ranking panel. When only one family member is dieting, compliance can be difficult. It’s easier to fall off the wagon when everyone else is digging into their favorites, and you’re stuck with a prepackaged meal.

A family-friendly diet comes with a built-in support system, and if you choose your plan wisely, the entire family’s health could improve.

Top Family-Friendly Diets

Jill Weisenberger, a registered dietitian nutritionist based in Newport News, Virginia, and a member of the U.S. News Best Diets ranking panel, notes that family-friendly diets have to be forgiving, simple and flexible for preferences, budget and tastes.

With all these factors and considerations in mind, the diets that have risen to the top for the whole family include:

Mediterranean diet.

DASH diet.

Mayo Clinic diet.

Vegetarian diet.

Flexitarian diet.

Mediterranean Diet

All five nutritionists cited here have picked the Mediterranean diet as their top choice for families looking to eat healthier. “I think the Mediterranean diet may be the best diet overall,” Bagheri says.

She favors this approach because while there isn’t one specific Mediterranean diet, the concept incorporates plenty of super healthy foods, including whole grains, fruits and nonstarchy vegetables, beans, seafood, herbs and spices and healthy fats.

What’s more, the Mediterranean diet is less a diet and more an approach to healthy living, Bagheri notes, with the food selections “built over an active and family-oriented lifestyle. Mealtime is not just about food; it’s also about family sitting at a table together connecting with one another.”

The Mediterranean approach is an alternative to the typical over-processed, fat- and sugar-laden American diet and emphasizes fish, vegetables, beans, legumes and whole grains drizzled with olive oil. It’s nutritionally sound and appropriate for all ages.

“Some people say, ‘I can’t follow this diet because I don’t like the foods,'” Fung says. “But actually, you can build a Mediterranean diet with very typical foods. Even someone like me, who doesn’t like olives or grape leaves — I can still do it.” That’s because the approach doesn’t ban entire food groups, which makes long-term compliance easier for all family members.

In addition, it can be adapted for convenience, making meal prep — a major hurdle for many busy families — easier. “The foods in the Mediterranean diet can be purchased fresh, canned or frozen which makes it economical and easy for families. And with a little extra effort, canned and frozen foods can be just as healthy and easy as their fresh counterparts.”

[See: The Best Plant-Based Diets.]

DASH Diet

This family-friendly eating pattern aims to deflate high blood pressure (the acronym stands for dietary approaches to stop hypertension), and it helps keep weight in check, too. The DASH diet does this by fostering a low sodium, high potassium diet that’s low in saturated animal fat. Online materials suggest how many calories you should eat for your age and activity level, meaning DASH can be tailored for kids and seniors alike. Meals emphasize fruits, veggies, grains, fat-free or low-fat dairy, and lean meat, poultry and fish — all conventional ingredients.

DASH along with other diets like the Mediterranean and flexitarian were among those Weisenberger, who is also owner of Food & Nutrition Solutions by Jill, thought were flexible and “focused on a selection of health-boosting foods.” She adds that they could also be modified to fit a family’s budget and preferences.

DASH-friendly recipes range from grilled pineapple to Southwestern potato skins, fruit smoothies and buckwheat pancakes. “I don’t think the typical American diet looks anything like DASH or Mediterranean,” Fung says. “Most families get pizza or go out to eat twice a week. But even if the diet looks very distant from where you are, moving (one) step closer will be an improvement.”

Mayo Clinic Diet

The Mayo Clinic’s take on healthy eating revolves around fruits, veggies and whole grains. “DASH and Mayo make sense as ‘cleaned up’ versions of the typical American diet,” Katz notes. You’ll learn to replace bad eating habits, such as chowing down while watching TV, with good ones, like getting at least 30 minutes of physical activity a day. It’s appropriate for all ages.

Bonus: “The Mayo Clinic Diet,” an essential guidebook, offers a crash course in nutrition basics that parents can use to educate children. “Anything that’s engaging or creates a dialogue is helpful,” Katz says.

Vegetarian Diet

Most vegetarians choose a lacto-ovo approach — eliminating meat, fish and poultry, while still eating eggs and dairy. Comparing plant-based diets, the approach is more family-friendly than is the more restrictive vegan approach, which bans all animal products, including dairy.

When done right, vegetarianism is nutritionally sound and can be tailored to all calorie levels. (A French-fries-and-doughnut diet technically counts as vegetarian, but no one would argue that it’s “healthy.”) What’s more, research suggests going vegetarian helps keep the weight off and prevents chronic diseases, such as diabetes.

Children will have an easier time adjusting to a vegetarian diet if they adopt it at a younger age, Katz says, because as they age, the more difficult they’ll find the sudden restrictions to be. Though doable, it does take planning to build a menu that meets the nutrition needs of vegetarians of all ages.

The American Dietetic Association says key nutrients to focus on are protein, omega-3 fatty acids, iron, zinc, iodine, calcium and vitamins D and B12. Vegetarians sometimes develop B12 deficiencies, since the vitamin is most plentiful in seafood and beef, but it’s possible to get enough from milk, yogurt, fortified cereals and supplements. Some vegetarian sources of these nutrients include hemp hearts, nuts, whole grains, milk, cheese, yogurt and eggs.

Flexitarian Diet

Admittedly, cutting out meat (or all animal products on a vegan diet) is not only tough for many adults, but also for kids. So for those families who want to boost health through eating a more plant-based diet, many experts recommend having less meat or being vegetarian most of the time. That flexibility is the hallmark of the flexitarian diet, and experts say that makes it a good fit for families.

“I think the best family-friendly diets are the ones that place the greatest emphasis on wholesome foods in sensible, flavorful, time-honored assemblies and that don’t impose a lot of rules,” Katz says. Accordingly, while he thinks Mediterranean should go to the top of the family-friendly diets list, Katz adds that the flexitarian diet belongs on the list as well.

[SEE: 8 High-Protein Breakfasts That Keep You Full.]

Offer a Variety of Foods for the Whole Family

Generally speaking, when it comes to settling on a way of eating for your family, experts emphasize that it’s important to be flexible, whether you adopt a flexitarian diet or something else entirely.

Family-friendly diets should:

— Not have a lot of rules.

— Not focus on weight loss or calorie-counting.

— Encourage intuitive eating, where kids follow cues like hunger, not a rigid program.

— Feature lots of plant-based foods, including healthy helpings of fruits and veggies.

— Account for the varied palates and preferences of all family members.

“Every meal should have a couple foods liked by even the pickiest family member,” Weisenberger says. It’s not about making separate meals for the kids. Rather, it’s about selecting an eating plan with enough range that everyone finds something they like, and granting children the autonomy to choose from that.

Whatever you put on your table, Weisenberger suggests allowing family members to pick their own foods without judgment from parents.

Lastly, Hardie adds that eating healthy as a family “doesn’t have to be hard or time-consuming. Involve everyone in the family to make meal times fun and a time that everyone looks forward to.” Together, you can build memories — and healthy habits — that last a lifetime.

More from U.S. News

12 Health Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet

16 Tips From Real People to Succeed on the Mediterranean Diet

A Day’s Worth of Meals on the Mediterranean Diet

Healthy Eating for Families: the Best Diets for Parents and Kids originally appeared on usnews.com

Update 03/23/22: This story was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.

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