As a chef and cookbook author, Donatella Arpaia knows her way around the kitchen. As a parent of three kids, she also knows how hard it can be to make sure everyone in the household is maintaining a healthy diet.
Every parent wants their kids to get the nutrition they need to thrive, but for some children, like those with type 1 diabetes, eating habits can be life threatening.
Arpaia has developed strategies and tactics in her own home to make sure her family is staying as healthy as possible. Her tips include letting her kids help out in the kitchen, investing in small appliances to make meal-prep easier, and avoiding certain foods and ingredients altogether.
The first step toward making a healthier household is by controlling what comes into the house in the first place. For instance: sugar. “I no longer have any granulated sugar in my home, I only use monk fruit sweetener, a zero-calorie, natural sweetener,” Arpaia says. “It tastes like sugar and looks and feels like sugar. It comes from monk fruit, a small, round fruit grown in Southeast Asia, and contains antioxidants.”
To stay healthy, Arpaia, who comes from an Italian family, says she tries to stick to a Mediterranean diet, and that’s how she stocks her kitchen as well.
“Italians like to eat a lot of fresh seasonal produce, and they always look for the best ingredients and search for quality over quantity,” Arpaia notes. “But I think a great item to have in your pantry is cannellini beans; it’s high in fiber and protein, and it’s delicious, inexpensive, and versatile. I love it sauteed with fresh garlic using good quality extra virgin olive oil, a dash of Calabrian chili paste, and a dash of sea salt.” Every element of this quick, vegetarian meal is rich with nutrients, from the beans to the oil to the garlic.
When it comes to snacks, Arpaia says to be prepared with a stash of berries or nuts or a good protein shake for whenever hunger strikes. “Slices of apple with almond butter is one of my favorite snacks. Lean protein, like roasted chicken or turkey wrapped in lettuce with avocado, is also yummy.”
Arpaia also notes that you don’t have to be a master chef to master making healthy meals yourself. She recommends meal prepping on Sunday and starting small. “Start with easier recipes and as you cook more you will find you can build on those skills one day at a time.”
Educating picky eaters
Of course, getting kids to eat the healthy food you’ve prepared is another story entirely. “I have a tween and toddler twins. They can be difficult and finicky, and they all have a sweet tooth,” Arpaia says. Her solution is to model healthy eating habits herself, and to provide information, not just rules. “I realize, especially for my older son, the more I educate him on food, the better. If I just tell him, ‘Don’t drink soda or eat that artificial candy,’ that’s me just saying no. But when I tell him to read the ingredients and to Google what those ingredients are and what it does to the body, it is extremely impactful.”
Another part of Arpaia’s hands-on approach is to invite her kids to “get messy in the kitchen” with her on the weekends. “They love cooking with me, and they’re more apt to try new ingredients when they are part of the preparation process.”
Arpaia says that sitting down as a family to eat dinner together (with no technology allowed!) has helped her foster good eating habits in her kids. “Especially growing up in an Italian household, sitting down to a family dinner was central to our structure,” she explains. “My kids get a kick out of judging me ‘Iron Chef’ style on the meal. This is often when I introduce new dishes or vegetables to try. My son recently discovered he loves the flavor of truffles. That was a big win for me!”
Lastly, says Arpaia, “you must keep at it.” It can be hard for parents who are pressed for time and exhausted, and it’s tempting to default to easy crowd-pleasers like nuggets, mac and cheese, or frozen pizza. However, “children won’t develop palates if they keep eating the same food.”