How to Improve Your Family’s Diet

While you can’t always control every morsel your children eat, you do have a lot of influence and control over their nutrition. This is part 1 of a series designed to help you improve your family’s diet

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How to Improve Your Family's Diet | Life as Mom

If you’re like most moms, you want your kids to be healthy. You want them to grow up with strong bones and a sturdy constitution. You want to spare them the agony of diseases that could be prevented.

While you certainly can’t control everything that impacts your children’s health, you do get to have a say in what goes into their bodies. Or at least what goes on the table and gets stored in the fridge.

When they were babies, you were the milk train. Today, you are still their main source of foodstuffs. You have a say in their diets because you pay the grocery bill! Though it may seem daunting, you can improve your family’s diet.

Healthy eating may not be high on my 12 year old’s list, but if I don’t “adult up” and put good choices in front of him, he will have a harder battle later in life. I remember my baby’s first pediatrician telling me about developing my kids’ taste buds. She said to feed the baby what we were eating — even spicy salsa — so that he would be acclimated to our family diet and not be a picky eater.

The two kids who got the most baby food? Yep, they were/are the pickiest eaters.

Food matters.

What we feed our children throughout their growing years has a huge impact on their health. What we parents eat matters as well. I don’t know about you, but if being a grandmother is such a life-changing experience, I’d like to live to see it!

Perhaps you are contemplating changes to make in regards to healthy living. Maybe you want to start an exercise program. Maybe you want to establish earlier bedtimes. Maybe you’re thinking about making some improvements to your family’s diet.

I know I am. I got lazy toward the end of the school year, buying more processed items, buying cheaper, more processed ingredients, staying up late, and skipping the exercise. I am ready to get back to some good habits, and get back toward cleaning up our family’s diet and eating better food.

As I mentioned in my list of wants, I’d like my life to be characterized by “healthy food and less temptation toward processed crap, etc.” FishPapa and I are making more changes in our family’s diet, reducing the sugars and empty carbs and upping the whole grains.

With the new school year getting under way, that means that I need to get a plan in action. If you’re looking to improve your family’s diet also, consider these points:

What do you want to change?

2008 June Grocery Geek trip

This is a glimpse into one of my grocery shopping trips in 2008. (I am the Grocery Geek, after all.) I didn’t think we ate a horrible diet back then, but man, it was certainly far from stellar.

Eight years ago I was mainly concerned with just getting food on the table. Any food.

Back in 2008 we were paying off debt and our grocery budget for 7 people, including pregnant me, was $400/month. You do what you have to do. It was a means to an end. If you’re in that place, you will get no judgement from me. Feed your babies as best you can with what you have to work with.

Changes in our diet

Once we paid off our debts, I allowed myself to research more about how to improve our eating habits. Before then I was just afraid to know. I didn’t want to get distracted from debt-reduction by guilt over the junk food we were eating.

Odd how we have to choose between eating healthfully and just plain eating.

Each year since then I’ve made some baby steps to feeding our family better quality food: buying more organics, cooking from scratch more, exploring more unprocessed ingredients. We’ve made a lot of changes to our general diet. Though he wasn’t all fired up about the changes initially, my husband is really thankful that I stuck with it. He recognizes how much better he feels when he eats our homemade food compared to other options. The McDollar Menu is a thing of the past.

The changes have been big for me, too. In 2008, I certainly didn’t look forward to a Quinoa Vegetable Salad for lunch, and Lettuce Wraps – no matter what they were filled with — would have seemed pretty weird.

But for all my healthy eating improvements, we still have room to grow. The end of the school year saw me buying more convenience foods, empty carbs, desserts, and snacks. I’ve gained a lot of weight since my thyroid started wigging out last year, and I’ve noticed other family members developing some unhealthy eating habits.

My kids were thinking that thrice-daily dessert was in the Bill of Rights! So, we all have ways to improve the diet, don’t we?

How do you want to improve your family’s diet?

Each family is going to have slightly different goals. There are so many special diets out there. I’ve studied Whole30, paleo, AIP, and South Beach over the last year. I have a friend who loves what veganism has done for her family’s health.

I see positives and negatives in them all, but I’m not sure that there’s any one right diet. We live in a fallen world. This is no garden of Eden.

The common ground I do see in all these diets is what I’m striving for: real food, whole ingredients, fewer processed items, less/no sugar, lots of water, lots of veg, and regular mealtimes.

My specific goals for stocking my kitchen include:

  • no GMO‘s
  • no artificial flavors, colors, or preservatives
  • no artificial trans-fats
  • no unfermented soy
  • no RBST and other added hormones
  • more vegetables
  • fewer processed foods (I know better than to say none at all)
  • YES to real food (much like this)
  • YES to organics when we can afford them, avoiding the Dirty Dozen when we can’t
  • YES to more homemade and minimally-processed foods
  • YES to whole grains
  • fewer sugary treats

The food our grandparents ate is not the same food we buy in the stores today. For better AND worse, technology has changed our food supply. I personally think it’s in our best interests to be informed about food technology and how it can impact our future health and that of our kids.

Based on the reading I’ve done so far and what my gut tells me, these are the areas I want to improve on. Your list may look slightly different.

Create your own list of ways to improve your family’s diet.

Your list doesn’t have to be as long as mine. Maybe it’s as simple as “let’s eat more meals at home.” That’s a great place to start, so don’t compare. Think about YOUR family and how you want to improve your family’s diet.


Read and research.

Once you know where you want to grow, I suggest you find some good books on the topic.

If you want to eat at home more often and make your own take-out favorites, I recommend the book The Kitchen Counter Cooking School by Kathleen Flinn. This is one of my very favorite books about cooking in the home kitchen. I reread it every year.

Another good one is Make the Bread, Buy the Butter. While I don’t agree with every conclusion the author makes, I think she does a great analysis of what you can easily make yourself. There’s a lot more that you can do than you think!

If you want to stock up on homemade convenience items, grab a copy of Not Your Mother’s Make-Ahead and Freeze Cookbook. Ahem. You’ll have everything you need to know about freezer cooking right there at your fingertips. (My other cookbooks, Good Cheap Eats and Good Cheap Eats Dinner in 30 Minutes or Less are also focused on homemade meals made from whole ingredients.)

There are books on probably every topic you’re interested in exploring. Spend a few minutes in the library database or on Amazon and browse until you find a good fit.

Books that have guided my thinking on food include:

  • In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan – An amazingly good treatise on what the power of marketing and legislation can do to our food supply and our eating habits, not necessarily for the better.
  • The Unhealthy Truth by Robyn O’Brien – Another expose of sorts on more of the same, told from a mom’s perspective with a dash of food allergy awareness thrown in for good measure.
  • The Kitchen Counter Cooking School by Kathleen Flinn – A fabulous memoir/cooking guide on how to cook almost everything at home and why it’s important to take charge of your kitchen.
  • French Kids Eat Everything by Karen Le Billon – This book convicted me about what a wimp I was being around my kids and their pickiness about food. We’ve made some big improvements, but still have some room to grow.
  • French Women Don’t Get Fat by Mireille Guiliano – I know, this is a horrible title, but the book is chock full of common sense and savoir faire. I love her no-nonsense, yet balanced approach to enjoying great food. And yes, she sounds a little snooty. She’s playing up her Frenchness. 😉
  • Salt, Sugar, Fat by Michael Moss – When I read this I was dumbfounded by the research on how scientists have changed our food. It’s not exactly what Gramma used to make! This is a MUST-READ. My eldest teen boys have both read it and the next two are due to read it this year. (The kindle version is currently under TWO DOLLARS. You can’t afford to pass this up!)

How to Improve Your Family's Diet - First in a larger series on how to improve your family's diet.

Plan how you will improve your family’s diet.

Next, consider how you will implement your new changes. I highly recommend discussing this with your husband. If you’re both on the same page, the battle is more than half won. If he’s not on board with your suggested improvements, it won’t be good for your goal or your marriage.

FishPapa trusts me to research and implement. He’s used to my experimenting in the kitchen. He’s seen the evidence that more whole foods more homemade make him feel better. He’s cool with it.

If your spouse and kids aren’t in the same place, then you may need to do some convincing. Take baby steps to effect change. Don’t swap your family’s favorite spaghetti dish for whole wheat noodles in one go. Trust me, you will not be very popular. And you’ll have lots of leftovers.

As long as the food is tasty and I’ll providing some healthier alternatives to the junk they think they want, my family is generally okay with my efforts to improve our diet. That said….

Plan for baby steps to improve your family’s diet.

No sustainable change happens overnight. As my friend Amy says, it’s a cha-cha. Two steps forward, one step back. That is how we mothers dance through life. Not everything you want to happen will happen when you want it to, if then.

Plan small steps and don’t be discouraged when your peeps don’t embrace whole wheat spaghetti with open arms.

1. Shopping strategies to improve your family’s diet.

Over the years I’ve experimented with different recipes, ingredients, and techniques. I’ve also bought a lot of different ingredients from a lot of different stores. Through trial and error, I’ve found certain brands and products, like Trader Joe’s and Bob’s Red Mill that I know are a good fit for my goals.

–> See my series, Real Food Products We Love

From time to time I use the Pantry Challenge to help me use up and clean out the things that don’t really fit my goals. Keep in mind that if you have ingredients in your cupboard that you really shouldn’t be eating, it’s okay to discard them.

My grocery geekiness has also helped me to narrow down which stores help me stretch our grocery dollars farthest so that we can enjoy healthier foods.

Make Ahead Breakfast Ideas Life as Mom

2. Make-ahead meals

Shopping is one thing, but cooking is the harder thing to pull off. Make meals ahead of time whenever you can. Even breakfast!

Freezer cooking can really help bridge the gap between getting hot and bothered in the kitchen and running out for fast food.

Check out these freezer cooking plans:

3. Quick suppers

I have a repertoire of meals that I can make in 30 minutes or less — as well as an entire cookbook. In this way on those nights when my freezer plan doesn’t work, I have a back-up plan that can provide dinner for my family without running for take-out or convenience foods that don’t fit our new goals.

Years ago I shopped heavily with coupons and fed my people more processed foods than I ever dreamed possibly. I also had a daily Coke (cola) habit that I broke. While we still have lots of areas to grow in, we’ve come a long way in the last five years or so. I’m excited to make more changes and to help my kids develop their taste buds to appreciate healthier fare. I know it will pay off in the long run.

How do YOU want to improve your family’s diet?

Check out the rest of the series:

I hope you’ll join me on this journey to better eating! Let’s chat in the comments.

What’s a food goal for YOUR family?

Originally published January 5, 2014. Updated July 28, 2016.

Disclosure: This post does include affiliate links. If you make a purchase through those links, I am paid a small amount in way of advertising fees. Your price does not change, but your purchase indirectly helps support this site. So thanks!

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  1. I’m happy with our food purchasing in general. We don’t buy soda. My husband actually doesn’t drink it and I only have it at the movies. We don’t even go down the chip/cereal aisle. My husband and I each buy ourselves one treat to last a month if I have room in the food budget. If not I’ll make us cookies of cupcakes. I always have fresh and frozen produce. We don’t buy processed things (in general). If I did have a food goal it would be to eliminate or greatly reduce our eating out.

    • Great goal. And what great habits you have!

      • Thanks. Much like yourself my eating goals have adapted and evolved over time. I had to cut back on dairy at 17 when I found out I had a predisposition to calcium Kidney stones. After having one I never wanted one again. So I stopped milk completely and cut back on sodas (just incase). Since I cant have milk I stopped buying cold cereal. My husband is a huge fitness guy and genuinely does not like the taste of junk (except chocolate cake) so I don’t buy it.

        I think that the biggest thing for me was growing up in a very very low income house in the sticks. My mom was a single parent who cooked every day. I had to eat the lunch that the school provided as well because my mom could not afford to buy us lunches to bring. When you are poor you can afford junk/convenience items so we never had them in my house. I just never really developed a taste for them (except Coca Cola classic). We were so far away from the nearest restaurant (over 30 minutes) that we NEVER ate out even if we would have had the money!

  2. I’m not as concerned with GMO/organic, but many of my own goals are the same as yours. I recently realized we are falling far short of the number of fruits and vegetables we should be eating. I followed your recent link to the USDA’s “Thrifty Food Plan,” trying to figure out how I was feeding my family on about half what they allow at the lowest level of food stamps. What I discovered is I prepare far less meat than they allow, but also far fewer veggies in particular, as well as fruit. If I fed my family the recommended number of fruits and vegetables at $1/lb, it would add $210/mo to my food bill! So obviously I have some work to do to improve my family’s meals!

  3. I don’t know if it’s a good or a bad thing to have such a visual record of your grocery geek past – for you I mean – fascinating for me LOL – I too have been able to switch to a more choice based diet than a need based one now that our debt is gone etc.
    2013 I switched to mostly local/natural and organic meats, tried VERY hard on the produce front in that regard, and reduced processed foods somewhat
    2014 I hope to focus more on gmos than I have been, do even less processed and increase our produce intake [not just my purchases LOL]

    Thanks for the inspiration as always

    • It’s totally fascinating for me, too. I was pregnant with my sixth kid and lived in Kansas, so it’s SUCH a change from life today. Crazy.

      I’m impressed with your switching the meats. That is a really hard change for me to make. Did you have to spend a lot more to make that happen? The produce switch was really easy for me and not that much more expensive.

      • honestly it took a while – I was trying, and using costco and some at tjs – but when the price of regular ground beef went up so dramatically it became easier to stomach the cost for organic! And then thankfully I found a great family farm – not certified organic but the kind of place I’m comfortable with both their practices and their family processing place – free range grass fed animals even chickens with endless photos of life on the farm – and an open invite to visit – and for us the kicker was it’s east coast so the shipping is NOT outlandish – and the prices aren’t bad – I mostly buy ground beef and pork from them, sometimes chicken but now that tjs organic is available so easily i mostly buy that. I buy some steaks and roasts but that IS pricier! significantly

        I use less to some extent but we’re big meat eaters so not much – we waste less for sure and we have meatless meals each week to balance it out

        LIke many things once I committed it’s hard to go back! And once I adjusted to the price points I no longer feel tempted by the cheap proteins as loss leaders – I know the difference and while we CAN afford it that’s what I’ll feed my peeps – it’s a large part of our spending – like you all – but worthwhile for us.

        I think it’s a matter of keep looking till you find the combo that works for you – I’m always jealous of a lot of your options out there LOL – it was a pleasure to find someplace near us that fit with both my price point and my game plan! The shipping cost for CA would be exorbitant of course – but I looked on my local chowhound board [ or something then forums] and that’s how I found the farm that works for us – I’ll bet that your local area boards might have some good suggestions for you

        • Thanks for the feedback. Healthier meat is really hard to source here. You’re right on the ground beef, though. If conventional is $3 a pound, I can easily pay $4 for organics. It’s the other cuts that are trickier.

  4. Hi! Great post – thank you! I love the book suggestions.

    I’m wondering if anyone has suggestions for books for kids to read about healthy eating – or specific strategies with kids. We try at our house, but I struggle to give the kids healthy food without being a control freak. I’m trying to find the right balance between giving the kids more freedom in their food choices, while promoting healthy eating. Sometimes my kids seem to gorge when sweets or treats are available – and they are overly concerned in making sure they have an “equal” amount to their sibling, and it’s probably because I’ve been too restricted in letting them choose what they want. Any suggestions to help me get out of this rut would be appreciated!

  5. My goal for 2014 is to cook more vegetarian meals and reduce our consumption of meat. We love meat, and I’m not going to eliminate it, but the meat we buy is organic, grass fed or free range so therefore very expensive. I’d rather make it more of the “side dish” than the main entree. I’d also like to have my kids embrace more vegetables so making different entrees where veggies are the star of the show will help with that. It’s a process. When I get discouraged, I look back like you did and see how far I have come! No more soda, less processed food, I make most of our food and I know we are consuming higher quality food than we were 5 years ago just based on the choices I now make.

  6. Jaime Grigsby says:

    Just read your steps to get out of debt and really enjoyed it. We are currently (and have recently started) paying off our debt although we started the baby steps in a different order, so we need to re-figure that 🙂 We have listened to Dave Ramsey for years but have gotten off track. Thank you for sharing your experiences!!

  7. I’m not a regular commenter, but I wanted to tell you, I am SO glad you are focusing on this. We eat pretty well as far as processed foods and cooking at home go. I have three kids under 5 and I am trying to break some of the habits I have had my whole life to create a new food atmosphere for my children. What good is it to teach them about healthy foods if I’m sneaking donuts from the freezer when they aren’t looking? I’ve had to learn to cook on my own since my mom didn’t cook, but some things are still scary. When I start researching recipes and a whole foods lifestyle, I am intimidated. I live in a small rural town so most of the ingredients I would have no way of getting and even if I did, it’s all so different from what the normal food culture is here that it is intimidating. Whew! All that to say, I was so happy to read this post. I love how approachable and un-scary you make new things…I can’t wait to see what you do with this!

    • Wow! Your comment was a day brightener! Today I was struggling that I’m not “one of the popular bloggers” and then my focus kept going back to why I do this: to help other moms. So, I’m so glad to hear that that is happening. Thanks.

      Back on topic, I think that you don’t have to do weird ingredients if you’re making homemade. Just cooking outside the boxed mix is a huge step toward feeding your family better. I honestly don’t buy THAT many funky ingredients. But, I know that you could buy a lot of it online if you wanted something funky. I buy a ton of Bob’s Red Mill products off Amazon because they are cheaper than at Sprouts or Walmart.

  8. Our family food goals for 2014 are to eat most meals at home, stay within budget and try to lose some weight. My challenge is sweet stuff. My husband’s challenge is salty stuff. I am working to find substitutes made from scratch with more nutritious ingredients.

  9. I really appreciate your common ground approach. I’ve been around long enough to see fad diets come and go. Although we do not use that many processed foods, I’d like to use even fewer (i.e. salad dressings, cream of whatever soups, etc.). I would also like to do more gardening this year. My children are more eager to eat vegetables that they have helped grow. Thank you for the book suggestions, too. I had the one about French women checked out last month, but I didn’t get to it. (Extra reading time in December? What was I thinking? =) ) I’m looking forward to this series!

  10. Would the Kitchen Counter book be good for a teen to learn from? My 16 is very interested in cooking–to the extent that we’ve set a goal of planning/budgeting, shopping/cooking for one month before I graduate him from high school. (bonus for us that he’s going to be living at home for college and can have days assigned for dinner) I’m obviously teaching him but the kid is a sponge and could do good having some resources other than my brain. (yes, we have your latest book).

    • Since it’s a memoir, there are some adult themes present. There is one chapter about a dancer that I’m not sure is really appropriate for kids. Otherwise, I think that it’s a fantastic, educational book.

  11. Stephanie L says:

    We are cutting out processed foods and snacks. I’m working with the picky child to try new foods.

  12. Thought this article was really great– and sums up where I’m at: I try to feed my family well– cook from scratch from whole foods, not much processed, organic when I can, etc but allow for the occasional fast food trip or packaged granola bar… I think obsession about anything other than God is probably not a good thing… as with everything- trying to keep a balance. 🙂

  13. We are working toward similar goals in our diet. Hubs has started to go to the farmer’s market with me and he has enjoyed getting to know some of the farmers that supply milk and meat as well as the fruits and veg. It’s convincing him to eat a little closer to home!

  14. Thankful for your encouragement to make it work where you are at. Sometimes a momma needs a break from those that preach too hard and have no idea how hard it is for some people to keep it real! Slow and steady at my own pace. Thanks for being an encouragement in that area. Seriously.

    • Smack me upside the head if I get like that. We all want to do what’s best for our kids, given the circumstances we’re in. It can be so different depending on those circumstances. Thanks for your kind words!

  15. My goals are very similar to your goals that you have for your family. My husband and I both come from families that have histories of high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and etc. So, it is very important to us to start eating healthy. Last year, we started shopping at Trader Joe’s and really making better food choices. We fell off the bandwagon a little, but we are very eager to get back on track again. We have already sat down talked about our goals, and we both want to eat healthy and remain that way. We’ve already started cooking at home way more then we used to, and it’s amazing! I can’t wait to visit Trader Joe’s this weekend! I also am excited to continue reading the rest of your series on ‘How to Improve Your Family’s Diet’

  16. ALL those topics sound so interesting to me! I hope you’ll be blogging about them along the way 😉 There are lots of freezer meals and quick meals online, but they so often use lots of processed foods. I look forward to more healthy recipes and snack ideas from you!

  17. I am so excited about this series, Jessica. Many thanks for taking the time to offer this information/these suggestions.

  18. Good Cheap Eats has always been my favorite food blog. Now with you food goals I’m loving you even more. We have been eating a non gmo diet for a year now. A friend of mine influenced me. I have not gone back since. I’m looking forward to recipes & helps you will be sharing. I very excited & happy for you & your family with these changes.

  19. I am not real familiar with whole food type diet. Not an excuse but in my 50’s. Also I have cut some processed foods out of our diet. You mentioned this help with losing weight also? What book would you recommend to start with for a newbie?

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