PROBLEM #1: Hectic schedules undermine mealtimes. Without structured meals, members of the Reeves family are often left to their own dinnertime devices . . . or vices. “We usually come home and dive into whatever’s quickest and easiest in the fridge,” John says. Or worse, they’ll hit a fast-food drive-thru and scarf down dinner in the car.
Take the coach approach
Devise a game plan–one that the entire family is invested in. “Spend half an hour together on Sunday putting together a food plan for the coming week,” says Skolnik. Then develop a specific menu for each day. Shop accordingly so the food you need is always on hand, and the junk you don’t need is still taking up shelf space at the Piggly Wiggly.
Having more meals at home will automatically improve kids’ eating habits. A Harvard University study found that in families who eat meals together, children consume higher amounts of calcium, fiber, iron, and vitamins B6, B12, C, and E, and take in less overall fat, than children who frequently miss family mealtimes.
Be practical in your planning
Anticipate roadblocks that may cause plans to go astray. When circumstances zig, you can zag. “If you know Tuesdays are crazy, make it an order-in pizza night-that’s okay,” Skolnik says. “Go ahead and write that into your plan. Then, if you know that Thursday night is always a good night to cook, plan on making a meal that includes lots of healthier stuff, and allow for that, too.”
PROBLEM #2: The most important meal is missing. With a busy schedule, breakfast is often the first meal axed.
Wake up at 6:55, not 7:00
Five minutes is all you need to toast a waffle, heat instant oatmeal, microwave some sausage links, or fix any of the three complete breakfasts below. “Studies have shown that when you eat breakfast, you eat less later in the day,” Skolnik says. “Taking your calories more evenly throughout the day helps you avoid big deficits and high peaks. It’s the best way to control the body’s fat distribution.”
1. The commuter breakfast: Half an apple, cored, then spread with peanut butter and topped with raisins. Drink: Bottled yogurt smoothie. Prep time: 2 minutes.
2. The energy-boosting breakfast: Bowl of instant oatmeal, cup of berries topped with a big spoonful of yogurt. Drink: Orange juice. Prep time: 4 minutes.
3. The muscle-building breakfast: 2 scrambled eggs, 2 links of turkey sausage, 1/2 bagel. Drink: 2 percent milk. Prep time: 5 minutes.
PROBLEM #3: Restaurants are a meal ticket to overeating. When you’re paying for food, you want your money’s worth. Combine that with a pragmatic clean-your-plate mentality and it adds up to a recipe for dietary disaster.
Skip the starters
Those loaded cheese fries weigh in with nearly 3,000 calories. Avoiding this kind of appetizer will cut hundreds of calories out of the meal.
Always order a salad
“Front-load the meal with more nutritious stuff to take the edge off your appetite,” Dr. Katz advises. You can still enjoy the entrée, just less of it. And when in doubt about dressing, always choose the vinaigrette. It’s guaranteed to contain a balance of good fats and calorie-free vinegars.
Head off half of the dish
“Ask the server to split the portion before it arrives at the table, and take half home,” Dr. Katz says. “Congratulations—you just got two meals for the price of one.”
As the stomach fills, it produces a hormone called ghrelin that tells your brain to make you stop eating when your stomach is full. Shovel the food in too fast and the brain can’t catch up.
Six slow-down tactics:
1. Cut food into smaller pieces. Taking bites that are actually bite-sized will help slow the rate at which your stomach fills.
2. Set down the cutlery in between bites. Picking it up and using it to cut the next bite adds time to the meal.
3. Give your jaw a workout. Completely chew and swallow each bite before taking the next one.
4. Sip water frequently. Liquid takes up stomach space, too.
5. Chat more, chow less. Use mealtime to exceed the national average of 14 1/2 minutes of daily family conversation.
6. Check your hunger level. As you eat, ask yourself if you’re still hungry. When the answer is no, stop eating.
Remember, it’s not the last supper
Unless you’re hit by lightning as you exit the restaurant, you will be able to eat again. Don’t carry on like a condemned prisoner, already.
PROBLEM #4: You’re a binge snacker. Animal Planet is not the place to get your food cues. “When omnivorous animals have food available, they just keep eating until their bellies hit the ground,” Dr. Katz says. “Binge eating is our normal behavior, but only if we have to fend off the threat of starvation.” You’re not starving, but your evolutionary impulses remain. It’s up to you to fight them.
Go on a pantry raid
Trade the chips, cheese crackers, and cookies for filling foods–quality complex carbs such as whole-wheat crackers, oatmeal, fruit, and protein-packing string cheese, yogurt, and trail mixes. Because you digest fiber- and protein-filled foods at a slower rate, they stay in your stomach longer, leaving less room for junk. And because proteins and carbs have about half the calories of fats, they cause less caloric damage.
Develop a traveling snack strategy
All of the above smart snacks are portable. Bring them with you in the car and keep some stashed at the office.
PROBLEM #5: Sugar is like God; it’s everywhere. Spend 10 minutes watching Saturday-morning television and you’ll see why kids grow up craving sugary foods; advertisers know their demographic. According to a Food Institute estimate, food marketers spend $13 billion each year targeting children. They aren’t hawking apples and bananas.
Pass fizz ed
Measure out teaspoons of sugar equivalent to what a single 20-ounce bottle of soda contains (1 teaspoon holds 4 grams). You’ll wind up with a 17-teaspoon mound. When we tried this trick with the Reeveses, they were stunned. “That’s a lot of sugar,” said Ryne, as the pile grew. Try tea instead. Some bottled varieties, such as Tazo and Republic of Tea, contain less than half the sugar that colas do.
Foil a cereal killer
Some breakfast cereals start kids’ days with half as much sugar as you’d find in a bottle of cola. “Mix in some Cheerios with the sweeter cereals to help cut down on sugar and to provide fiber,” Skolnik says. “The kids will still have the taste they love, but they’ll get more long-lasting fuel and energy out of it.”