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The Moms' Guide to Meal Makeovers

After a long day at work, getting dinner on the table for your family can be a challenge. Because of this, more often than not you may end up serving fast-food, takeout meals, or convenience foods. Did you know you can serve healthier foods at a fraction of the cost?

Meal makeover plan

Taking small steps each week in the right direction in terms of what you buy and cook can improve your family's eating habits. Here are some ideas:

  • Week one. Add one extra serving of fruit each day. Top your child's favorite cereal or frozen waffle with a handful of sliced strawberries or bananas. Offer a fresh fruit smoothie for a quick and delicious snack. Add grapes, sliced strawberries, cubed melon, an apple, or a single-serve fruit cup to his or her school lunch box.

  • Week two. Add one extra vegetable serving each day. Add a shredded carrot to tuna salad. Add a bag of baby carrots or grape tomatoes to school lunches. Serve carrot and fruit juice blends for breakfast instead of plain orange juice. To hold hungry appetites at bay while you're completing dinner, put a bowl of low-fat or fat-free ranch dressing and sliced vegetables on the table for an "appetizer."

  • Week three. Add one healthy beverage each day. Pack 100 percent fruit juice or 1 percent low-fat milk instead of sugary sodas in school lunches. Make "homemade" soda by combining 100 percent fruit juice with club soda.

  • Week four. Include one healthy snack each day. Offer a midmorning snack of dried fruit and nuts, a squeeze yogurt, or grapes instead of cookies or chips. Serve homemade oatmeal cookies made with less fat and sugar than store-bought goodies to cut down on unhealthy trans fat and too much sugar.

  • Week five. Serve one extra high-fiber grain food each day. Use 100 percent whole wheat bread or other whole-grain breads instead of white breads for sandwiches. Buy cereals made with whole grains instead of sugary, low-fiber brands. If your kids won't give up their favorites, mix it 50/50 with a healthier brand. Serve brown instead of white rice. Make pancakes with buckwheat instead of white flour.

'Market' good nutrition

It's tough competing with TV ads for sugary cereals, salty snacks, and high-fat fast foods. But it can be done.

Take a lesson from the fast-food marketers and give some thought to how you can make healthy foods more appealing to your children.

Instead of stressing the health benefits of carrots, simply say, "These baby carrots are so delicious and sweet, you should try some," as you pop one in your mouth. Or make vegetables more interesting by adding a little kosher salt and olive oil to steamed green beans or potatoes. You could cut melon slices into fun shapes if you have young children.

Establish food rules

It's unlikely that your children agree with all the rules of behavior you insist on, and they may not like your "good" food rules, either. But you're the boss and should feel free to make a few (not too many) rules regarding what your family eats. Here are some ideas: Serve milk instead of soft drinks with meals. No candy before dinner. Don't offer sweets as a reward for eating dinner.

Food rules encourage healthy eating habits early in life, which can help prevent diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and other chronic conditions later on.

Streamline your cooking

Fortunately, there's no connection between improving your family's diet and spending more time in the kitchen. It takes just as long to wash an apple as to open a bag of cookies or chips.

Even so, making some changes that can reduce your kitchen duty is well worth it. Don't be afraid to use convenience foods occasionally, but choose the healthiest ones by reading labels and choosing those with the least fat, salt, and sugar. Organize your pantry and refrigerator so you can find things fast.

Eat together

It may be the hardest part of the healthy meal makeover to accomplish, but eating together regularly is an important component to improving your family's diet.

Studies have shown that meals eaten as a family at home improve children's nutrition, strengthen family ties, enhance communication, foster tradition, and boost self-esteem.