Healthy Foods

Excuses may be “eating at you” as to why you and your family are not enjoying healthy meals.

Area dietary experts give their advice on how to squash those excuses and peel away the not-so-healthy eating habits.

Sarah Dayton, registered dietitian for the Geisinger Health System,  Kirby N. Bittner, clinical dietitian with nutrition services at UPMC Susquehanna Sunbury, and Kimberly Criswell, dietitian-nutritionist with West Branch Medical Center at Evangelical Hospital provide some insight.


It takes time

A major reason families fall short in the area of nutrition has to do with lack of time. Heading to after school activities and sporting events can seem like a hindrance in healthy eating.

There are other ways to stay healthy without putting too much time into the process. It may only take 30 minutes.

“Setting small goals, one at a time, can lead to long-lasting change that is excellent for your health. Some ideas include: drink 64 ounces of water daily, eat five servings of fruits and vegetables daily, or exercise for 30 minutes a day,” Criswell said.

Another problem is society’s idea of a family meal with all the fixings and best china.

“People don’t think they have time to cook dinner. They think dinner needs to be like Grandma’s suppers with all the sides,” Dayton said.

Keep it simple, Bittner said.

“Family meals do not have to be elaborate, they can be a simple starch (rice, pasta, etc.), protein (meat), and vegetable,” Bittner said. “If you are feeling like you are on a time crunch, create meals on the weekend (or when you are less rushed) that can be frozen and heated up throughout the week for when you are on the go.”

Modern-day meal kit options have made it easier for on the go parents to get the vegetables and proteins into their meal time.

“Most of these you can make for a family of four in 20 to 30 minutes,” Dayton said.

Many families opt to eat out at fast food restaurants for the sake of time, too, Dayton, said.

Bittner warns families to carefully monitor options at restaurants.

“Try choosing foods that are steamed, baked, broiled, or roasted and ask for the salad dressing on the side and try to avoid foods with gravies or sauces as they add extra bulky calories to the meal,” Bittner said.

Dayton said eating out may not save you any money.

Dayton estimated a family of four will eat at McDonalds for $25. A business like Panera Bread may leave a family of four paying $35 without beverages.

Dayton suggested another drive through option. She noted Weis Markets offers “Curbside to Go,” in which you can buy your groceries online and someone at the store will grab the items for you to pick up.

“The shopping itself takes time,” she said, so this opportunity is a plus.

Another time saver for a family where both parents work away from the home is to get the kids involved in meal preparation. Having older children cut up vegetables or simply having the recipe items front and center on the counter ready for preparation saves time, Dayton said.


It’s too expensive

Another misconception, Dayton said in regards to healthy meal preparation is that items such as produce are too expensive.

By keeping the children involved, families can grow their own food and make it a family project, Criswell said.

“It is a fun project to pick out healthy recipes and prepare them together with your children. You can also grow a garden and enjoy your own fresh produce; cherry tomatoes or strawberries picked from your own plants make great meals and snacks,” she said.

The truth is, Dayton said, that meats are the most expensive grocery item. A way around this problem is to “bulk up” the meal with lentils, zucchini or other vegetables to stretch out the contents of the meal.

Dayton said many feel that purchasing meat from a butcher or in organic form is healthier, but not necessarily cheaper. To stretch the grocery bill, she said,  don’t neglect the possibility of purchasing meat in the grocery store.

Be a smart shopper, Bittner said.

“Search through the supermarket circulars where coupons are and base your meals for the week on which foods are on sale. Also, preparing a list prior to going to the store and sticking to what is only on the list, can prevent you from buying unnecessary items that you don’t need. Creating small habits such as these can help provide more for your family,” Bittner said.

A safe way to shop for any of the grocery items, Dayton said, is to monitor both price and packaging information.

Label confusion, she said, can force individuals to feel as though food has expired or is no longer edible. A sell-by date, she said, is a date that identifies when the item needs to be sold, not when the item will go sour. A consume-by date, on the other hand, means the item must be tossed after this date.

Expiration dates on canned goods are not consume-by dates, Dayton said.

“Most items are good two to three years past the date. If you open it and there is no weird smell and the can is not bulging, it is fine,” she said.

Paying attention to the ingredients listing can be helpful, too.

“The less ingredients something has, the better. If the ingredients list is longer than the nutrition list, it is not something I would want to put in my body,” Dayton said.


Unsure where to start

If time and money is not already a reason you have not been preparing healthy meals, perhaps an unawareness of how to revamp your menu is the problem.

Dayton pointed out most gyms in the area have information on nutrition through classes at the start of the new year. Many opportunities to learn about nutrition or simply find healthy recipes are available through social media and online.

For those with food restrictions or food allergies, there is help as well, Criswell said.

“If you need a special diet, frequently there will be an organization tailored to your health condition, with recipe and meal planning ideas posted online for inspiration. A couple examples include the American Diabetes Association ( and the American Heart Association (”

Another option, Dayton said, is to work together with other families your size and do meal swaps. Prepare new items and exchange recipes in a group setting. This option may also be helpful for small families or single individuals to take part in a group like this, Dayton said.

For senior citizens finding help with healthy eating may be a challenge, especially in terms of getting the food into their home.

“Senior citizens have a wonderful knowledge base regarding healthy meals using whole foods when looking back to the wholesome meals and smaller portion sizes of generations past,” Dayton said. “When health conditions interfere with transportation or meal preparation, home delivery meals or family and community support can lend a hand.”

“The main goal of healthy diet change is sustainability,” Criswell said. “The staple foods that you eat most of the time have considerable power to improve or impair your health over time. That’s why it’s very important to make healthy changes using foods that you enjoy and that fit your lifestyle so that you can maintain those changes.”

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