How to Make Gradual Changes in Your Family's Diet - One Step at a Time

How to Make Gradual Changes in Your Family's Diet - One Step at a Time

Looking to overhaul your family's eating habits? A gradual approach that involves the whole family is your best shot at getting lasting changes.

By Jane Schwartz Harrison, RD, Staff Nutritionist, myOptumHealth

Looking to overhaul your family's eating habits? You could abruptly strip your cabinets bare, empty the fridge and freezer and start fresh with all new foods. But you may risk a mini rebellion.

Taking small steps and introducing new things slowly gives everyone a chance to ease into healthier habits. A gradual approach that involves the whole family is more likely to result in lasting changes.

Check out the following suggestions to get started - one step at a time.

Teach healthy changes, don't preach
Kids are likely to feel more motivated if they have a clear idea of why the change in eating habits is important.

  • First, explain to your children how eating well can help them get a good night's rest, have more energy for sports and concentrate better in school.
  • Let them know that kids (and grown-ups) who eat healthy most of the time have a better chance of avoiding problems like diabetes and heart disease in childhood and adulthood.

Make becoming healthy eaters a (fun) family affair
The more you involve everyone in the process, the more likely they are to commit to making changes that will stick.

  • Look through cookbooks together and have everyone take turns picking different recipes. There are lots of healthy cookbooks out now that are geared to kids' palates.
  • Encourage your kids to help prepare and cook healthy meals.
  • Hold taste tests to find out the best whole-wheat bread, low-sugar cereal or low-fat yogurt.

Look for healthier substitutions in your diet
Look over your existing diet and find ways to make little substitutions. You'd be surprised how many of these will go completely unnoticed.

  • Substitute brown rice for white, or combine the two until you wean your family to brown.
  • Choose healthier cereals with less sugar and more fiber. Or mix higher-sugar cereals with low-sugar cereals to cut sugar in half.
  • Use low-fat instead of full-fat cheese, and low-fat mayo instead of full-fat.
  • For stir-fries, increase the amount of veggies and cut the amount of meat and oil.
  • Use blended whole-wheat and white pasta. Unlike with 100 percent whole wheat, they won't be able to tell the difference.
  • Instead of soda, mix seltzer with 100 percent fruit juice.
  • Gradually move from whole or 2 percent milk to 1 percent or skim.
  • Take an old family favorite and tweak the ingredients - use a lower-fat cheese or slightly less meat or replace some of the butter with canola oil. See if you can come up with a new family favorite!
  • Instead of cookies, chips, and sodas, have fresh fruit such as apples or orange wedges or crisp vegetables such as carrot sticks or celery on hand for after school snacks.

Start diet changes with one meal a week
Pick one night during the week to introduce something new. Use it as a chance to experiment with different recipes and healthier food choices.

  • Once this becomes routine, you can gradually expand to include other meals during the week.
  • Keep it simple. A nutritious dinner does not have to be fancy. Try easy things like scrambled eggs and a whole-wheat English muffin, pasta with turkey meat sauce, turkey burgers, chicken chili or minestrone soup with half a sandwich.
  • Avoid ultimatums. Saying, "We're going to try this recipe and see what we think," is a non-threatening way to introduce new foods and recipes. Ask for feedback and suggestions for improvement.

Find creative ways to increase fruits and veggies
Increasing fruits and veggies is a critical part of improving your family's diet. Try some of the following:

  • Before dinner, silently put out a tray of cut-up carrots, red or yellow peppers and celery or diced fruit. You'll be surprised how quickly fruits and vegetables disappear when kids are hungry.
  • Make fruit kabobs with strawberries, grapes and pineapple. Serve them for snack or dessert.
  • Instead of cake with frosting, enjoy some sliced berries over angel food cake.
  • Add peas to pasta or macaroni and cheese.
  • Add finely diced zucchini and carrots to meat loaf.

Everything in moderation
Teach your kids that they can still have their favorite treats once in a while - they just need to strike a healthy balance. This helps them learn to plan, and gives them a sense of control over their eating habits. For instance:

  • Syrupy pancakes and bacon for breakfast? Have a wholesome lunch and dinner.
  • Chicken strips and fries for lunch? Aim for a low-fat dinner.
  • Soda as a treat at one of their meals? Skip any sugary desserts for that day and enjoy fruit instead.

Above all, keep a relaxed attitude. Progress, not perfection, is your goal. And that's a strategy that will likely succeed with time and patience.


  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Weight control information network: Helping your child - tips for parents. Accessed: 05/04/2012
  • National Institutes of Health. Families finding the balance. Accessed: 05/04/2012

Copyright © 2012 myOptumHealth.