U of I Extension educator offers tips on making the healthy choice the easy choice

University of Illinois Extension
Updated 5/29/2015 9:32 PM
  • University of Illinois Extension Educator Jessica Gadomski offers tips for encouraging healthier food choices for families this summer.

    University of Illinois Extension Educator Jessica Gadomski offers tips for encouraging healthier food choices for families this summer. Courtesy of University of Illinois Extension

ST. CHARLES, Ill. -- Changes to school meal patterns and wellness policies have brought more healthful food options and wellness information to school-aged children. However, in this fast paced, over-planned world, how can we make the healthy choice the easy choice at home?

"'It's not nutrition until it's eaten,'" said Jessica Gadomski, University of Illinois Extension SNAP-Ed Educator, quoting the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition. "As we transition from the school year to summer, we can take a page from what we've learned in schools and apply the same strategies at home or on the run."

Research in the areas of behavioral economics, food marketing and psychology's influence on food decisions has led to the creation of the Smarter Lunchroom Movement. Created in 2009, Smarter Lunchrooms provides evidence-based no or low cost changes that can be made to the school lunchroom to improve a child's eating behavior and have simultaneously been shown to improve meal participation, profits and decrease food waste.

"Similar small changes can be replicated in the home and lead to improved health," said Gadomski, who also is a registered dietitian. "With obesity still on the forefront of public concern, identifying and encouraging the implementation of ways to guide more healthful food selections is crucial to promote long-term health."

So what can we do to make the healthy choice the easy choice? Gadomski offers a few strategies to keep in mind:

1.) Avoid situations where self-control cannot be maintained

"On those days you know you'll be running from one thing to the next, plan ahead," Gadomski said. "Scheduling meals and snacks, and pre-selecting foods to be served at those times, removes the temptation of other more convenient, but often less healthy, options."

Another way to avoid fast food is to consider setting limits to help curb the convenience. For example, agree to not purchase those items unless you use cash, or to only choose fast food once a month.

For nights spent at home, make a weekly menu to help you shop, prepare and stick to healthy choices.

"In addition to scheduling and planning meals ahead of time, don't forget to share these choices with others in your household," she said. "Have the kids pick vegetables or help choose from a few recipes, and create a weekly calendar to communicate the meal plans."

2.) Ensure healthful options are at home

When meal planning, it is easier to make a grocery list and stick to it.

"In any case, allocate a percentage of your food budget to all the food groups. The USDA My Plate model includes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and low-fat or fat-free dairy items," Gadomski said. "By reviewing store circulars, online coupons and store apps for deals, you also can find budget buys to stretch dollars."

Gadomski also recommends varying fruit and vegetable choices to match what is more affordable and in season.

3.) Make these healthy foods easily seen, accessible and appealing

Display the foods that should be selected most often at eye level and in arms reach. This may mean placing a two or even three arranged fruit bowls throughout the kitchen, as well as putting healthy refrigerator and pantry items on the more easily-accessed shelves.

When preparing a snack or meal, consider the form in which the foods are presented. Are you giving a whole apple to a child with loose teeth, or sending a whole, unpeeled orange with kids who only 10 minutes to eat? Consider modifying those whole fruits and vegetables to cut or peeled options.

Gadomski also recommends making vegetables and other foods more appealing by jazzing up the offerings with a fun name, such as "rockin' red peppers."

Smarter Lunchroom statistics show that by simply moving and highlighting fruit options, those sales increased 102 percent. By re-naming vegetables and displaying the new names with the foods, selection of vegetables increased by 40 to 70 percent.

"While people are creatures of habit, behaviors take time to modify," Gadomski said. "By increasing the presence, accessibility and marketing of healthful food choices, it helps children and teens make the healthy choice, the go-to choice."

If you would like to learn more about Smarter Lunchrooms and other Extension programs, visit web.extension.illinois.edu/dkk/.

University of Illinois Extension provides educational programs and research-based information to help Illinois residents improve their quality of life, develop skills and solve problems.

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