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We are eating way too much junk food. We want to clean up our family’s diet. Help!

Karen Prior responds: First of all, congratulations! Having the desire and energy to improve your family's diet is the first step.

Taking a little time to plan and prepare ahead of time can really help keep you on track. Here are some suggestions for helping you prepare.

Clean out the pantry. If sugar is listed among the first three ingredients, toss it out! Ingredient lists on packages are listed from greatest to least quantity, so if there is more sugar than flour in a food item, then sugar will be listed before flour in the ingredient list. Sugar can hide in ingredient lists as syrup, honey, corn sweetener, corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, high-fructose corn syrup, evaporated cane juice and a whole host of words ending in "-ose." You will be surprised how many canned vegetables, pasta sauces, crackers and soups have sugar listed in the first few ingredients. The lower down the list, the better.

Make a list of the junk foods everyone will miss the most. Find healthier alternatives to substitute for these junk foods. Eliminating the “fun” food altogether sets you up for failure -- there is nothing better than that forbidden chocolate cake! It is much better to eat a chocolate cake that is made of whole ingredients rather than eating a cellophane-wrapped snack cake. There are some really good healthy knock-offs for common junk foods. Shop at a health food store or in the health foods section of your grocery store. Brands like Barbara’s Kitchen, Whole Foods, Amy’s Gourmet and Newman’s Own make wholesome, healthy alternatives to the highly processed junk foods on the market. Buy smaller packages of these foods and limit how much you buy, so when it is all gone, everyone must wait until the next shopping trip for more. As a general rule, the fewer ingredients the better -- and if you can not pronounce it or if it sounds like a chemical, it is best avoided.

Make a list of acceptable foods everyone likes. Have everyone write down three to five healthy items that they are willing to eat for each meal. You may want to provide a list of samples of healthy foods. You could even come up with theme nights: Mexican Monday, Sandwich Tuesday, Italian Wednesday, Comfort Food Thursday ... Then have each family member come up with an acceptable meal for the theme night. If you have a family of four, you’ll end up with a month’s worth of meals (that is, if everyone can agree upon dishes that are acceptable or at least adaptable for all other family members). This list will help you in planning your menu.

Make a weekly menu and shopping list. Having a planned menu helps keep you on track and limits your susceptibility to heading to a fast-food restaurant or even snacking on a toaster pastry as you stand with the refrigerator open trying to figure out what to cook at the last minute. Use your weekly menu to plan your shopping list so you are sure to have everything on hand to prepare the meal. Enlist children in helping plan the menu and crosscheck the grocery list. Plan ahead the day before and check to see that all ingredients are on hand to avoid last-minute issues. We keep our menu on index cards, one for each dish/meal with the shopping list on the back. Post the menu for the entire family to view; this helps prevent the “What’s for dinner? Oh, I don’t want that!” conversation. By seeing the menu in advance, your family is more likely to get psyched up for the meal.

Try a new recipe or two each week. Talk to friends and family members, or flip through recipe books and find a new simple dish or two to prepare each week. This helps keep everyone from getting bored.

© Karen Prior. See more about Karen.

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