THE BLOG
11/04/2014 10:54 am ET Updated Jan 04, 2015

Ask JJ: Healthy Family Meals Without Civil War

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Hi JJ: I'm a 34-year-old working mother of three. My husband also works a 50-hour week. With all my kids' activities and my own obligations, I rarely have time to get a healthy meal on the table. If I do, the kids often protest and refuse to eat it. Especially with the upcoming holidays, how can I feed my family healthy without spending hours in the kitchen (which I don't have)?

In our fast-faster society that rewards more obligations, family mealtime often gets put on the back burner (if it occurs at all). Spurred on by your kids' incessant begging, succumbing to the drive thru or ordering in pizza becomes all too easy after a hectic day at work.

That's unfortunate, since you establish lifelong habits by eating together. One study found families who dined together five or more times a week (didn't matter what meal) created healthy eating habits for those adolescents five years later.

As a single mom raising two teenage boys, I know what a challenge that can become, and I've found these strategies can help tremendously.

Establish some ground rules but allow flexibility. Schedule meals, make them mandatory, and keep the conversation lively. Create a no-technology rule and become the example you want for your kids. Your son's 10-minute soccer game recap is more important than your friend's Instagram picture.

Keep meals varied and visually appealing. One study found seven different items and six different colors on a plate most appealed to kids. That allows ample opportunity for leafy and cruciferous veggies, slow-release high-fiber starches, healthy fats like avocado, and low-sugar impact fruit.

Exposure equals preference. I keep a must-try rule: They've got to try at least three bites of everything on their plates. With that strategy, I've converted more than one veggie-phobe with coconut oil steamed broccoli or Brussels sprouts with nitrate-free bacon and onions.

Above all, make mealtime fun and interactive. Asking your kids to do simple chores such as slicing veggies or setting the table makes your job easier and keeps them engaged.

Allowing them to choose dinner one night a week also keeps kids involved. That's where lateral shifts, or creative healthier choices, come in. Maybe your son wants burgers and fries. Simply swap grass-fed beef in a coconut wrap with baked sweet potato fries. If your daughter wants spaghetti, opt for no-corn quinoa pasta or spaghetti squash. Any meal becomes an opportunity for a lateral shift.

Breakfast sets your day's metabolic tone, and if scheduling dinner just isn't possible, morning becomes the perfect time to gather. One study among preschool children found consistently eating breakfast contributes to a healthy body weight, whereas the body mass index (BMI) of breakfast skippers increased.

Breakfast is my favorite meal, said no one ever, especially among the zillion tasks that greet us in the morning. That's why I love protein shakes as fast, filling, energy-boosting alternatives to high-sugar impact pastries and other desserts that pass as breakfast. Minimal prep time means more family table time.

My sons love the milkshake-y consistency of non-soy, plant-based protein powder with unsweetened coconut milk and lots of ice. Some mornings they might choose almond butter and cacao nibs. Others might include frozen berries and shaved coconut.

Even if you're doing meals correctly, snacking can undo your hard work. Don't even allow junk into the house. Yeah, your kids will probably get it elsewhere, but you've eliminated one gargantuan barrier when it doesn't sit around in the living room.

Instead, keep a variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and nut butters nearby. Hummus and kale chips are a hit in my home. One study involving college kids put fruit and veggies in clear or opaque bowls either nearby or about seven feet away. The closer bowls got more attention.

With high-sugar impact concoctions everywhere (really, reindeer cookies at the dentist receptionist's desk?), the holidays can become especially challenging to feed your kids healthy food. Keep the focus on family and festivities rather than food, don't try to be perfect, and if all else fails, crack open the almond butter and smear on a piece of 85 percent cacao dark chocolate. That will curb any craving so you and your kids aren't nose-diving into the triple-chunk chocolate brownies.

What's your one strategy to feed your kids healthy while also satisfying them? Share yours below. I love your questions, so keep them coming at AskJJ@jjvirgin.com.