Meredith Rizzo for NPR
Trust me, I know how exhausting it can be to figure out how to feed your kids a healthy diet while also living in the real world as a busy working parent with limited time and means.
Sometimes, popping a frozen pizza into the oven or microwaving some frozen fish sticks is the quickest, easiest and least expensive way to get a meal on the table that your kids will actually eat. Even health experts do it from time to time.
“My littlest one will eat mac and cheese” – from a box –”every day if he could,” says Kevin Hall, a senior investigator at the National Institutes of Health who studies obesity and diabetes.
These kinds of quick, convenient, ready-to-heat meals and packaged snacks now dominate the diets of American kids and teens. They’re all what’s known as all ultra-processed foods, that is, industrially formulated products made mostly from ingredients extracted or refined from foods. They’re usually high in fat, added sugars and salt. And they often contain additives like colorings, flavorings, emulsifiers or hydrogenated oils – used to transform the texture, looks and flavor of food.
Ultra-processed foods made up a whopping 67% of the calories in kids’ and teens’ diets in 2018, a trend that’s been growing, according to a study published in 2021 in the journal JAMA. The trend cuts across socioeconomic lines, notes study author Dr. Fang Fang Zhang, a nutritional epidemiologist at Tufts University. The same study found that kids are eating less of the foods we know are good for them – like fruits and vegetables.
A large body of research has linked high consumption of ultra-processed foods to a host of bad health outcomes in adults – including a higher risk of hypertension, obesity, Type 2 diabetes, some cancers and even dying prematurely from all causes, says Zhang.
Though the research is more limited in kids, some studies have found a link to health concerns such as weight gain and higher cholesterol levels. Zhang says there’s enough evidence that it makes sense to reduce the amount of these foods that kids eat, especially because dietary habits adopted in childhood often carry over into adulthood.
But that doesn’t mean you need to eliminate ultra-processed foods altogether. After all, there’s a reason why busy families like them: They’re convenient, tasty and affordable. So how can you make healthier choices without breaking the bank – or cooking late into the night? We’ve got advice from experts — plus some smart swaps for kids’ favorite junk foods.
First, learn to recognize ultra-processed foods
Some foods, like fresh vegetables, meat or dairy, are unprocessed or only minimally processed. Others, like canned tuna or peaches in syrup, are moderately processed — they usually have just two or three ingredients.
To spot an ultra-processed food, look at the ingredient list. If you see a bunch of items that wouldn’t be in your home kitchen – like stabilizers, flavor enhancers, artificial sweeteners, preservatives, thickeners and bulking agents — then it is ultra-processed. “That’s where you’re kind of wondering, is this really food or is this some sort of a creation?” says Allison Sylvetsky, a nutrition researcher at George Washington University whose work focuses on obesity and diabetes in kids.
Ultra-processed foods can include foods marketed as good for you. “There’s a lot of [health] claims on the packages and a lot of those claims can be misleading, whether they’re intended to be or not,” Sylvetsky says — which is why you need to read the ingredients.
Also watch for high sugar, fat and sodium content – which tend to be densely packed into these foods.
Beware of sneaky added sugars
Added sugars can appear by other names, notes Christopher Gardner, a nutrition researcher at Stanford University. For example, brown sugar, corn syrup, dextrose and high-fructose corn syrup are all sugar by another name. Sugar is often added because it helps make packaged foods irresistible.
And it’s not just in cookies and candies. It also pops up in places you might not expect it – so you might not realize just how much sugar your kids (and you) are eating in foods that aren’t desserts. For instance, I recently spotted added sugar in packaged tortilla chips.
To be clear, sugars occur naturally in foods like fruits and dairy – that’s not a concern. But added sugars are more common in less nutritious foods – and if your kids fill up on sugary foods, it leaves less room for the healthy stuff.
Check the nutrition facts label as well
If you take away nothing else from this story, remember this: Regardless of whether a food is ultra-processed, too much sugar, fat and salt are known risk factors for a host of poor health outcomes. Besides sugar, watch out for foods that can be sneakily heavy on salt. (Packaged breads are a known offender.) And don’t forget to look at serving sizes – they can be deceptive. Even a small package that’s easy to eat in one sitting can contain more than one serving.
Look for less-processed options with this nifty database
“Just because something is ultra-processed doesn’t mean it’s unhealthy,” says Sylvetsky. She says it’s a matter of how much and often you eat them. “It’s more when you do have a lot of ultra-processed foods, you have to kind of take a closer look at the ingredients and then try to make an informed decision.”
Meredith Rizzo for NPR
Researchers at Northeastern University actually created a cool online database called TrueFood that lets you browse for food items to see how processed they are. It scores foods on a scale from 0 (unprocessed or minimally processed) to 100 (highly ultra-processed) and even suggests less processed alternatives. So, for example, one brand of tortillas has a score of 94 and contains additives including emulsifiers, while another has a score of 1 – its ingredient list is simply corn, water, salt and lime. The database is still a prototype and doesn’t contain every food out there, but you may find it useful.
Fill your kids plates with fruits and vegetables. Guess what? Frozen and canned count, too
One trick I often use with my own kids is to fill half their plate with vegetables I know they’ll eat. (They’re fans of cooked frozen broccoli.) Instead of chips, I also pack fruits they like as lunch snacks. The more of the good stuff they eat, the less room they have in their stomachs for junk.
And loading up on produce doesn’t have to bust your budget. “Don’t be afraid to buy frozen or canned,” says Neftali Duran, an instructor with Cooking Matters, a program of the anti-hunger nonprofit Share Our Strength that teaches families how to make healthier choices at the supermarket on a tight budget. Research shows frozen produce is just as nutritious as fresh, but it’s often more affordable.
Another bonus of frozen veggies? Less waste. “Use whatever you need and you can put it back in the freezer,” Duran says.
As for canned produce, it can be a fine option if it’s packed in water, says Sylvetsky. Just watch out for additives like salt and sugar. (Think fruit canned in syrup.) One tip: If you pick up a can of beans with added sodium, drain them in a colander for 2 minutes, rinse them off with running tap water for 10 seconds, then drain them again for another 2 minutes. Research suggests this can flush out a lot of the excess sodium.
Shop the grocery store perimeter — and try Latin or Asian markets
Duran notes you can also save on fresh produce by shopping at Latin or Asian markets, which often offer a wide array of quality produce for cheaper prices than chain grocery stores. In general, experts suggest shopping the perimeter of the supermarket first – that’s where you’ll usually find the fresh or frozen produce, meat and dairy products. The middle aisles are generally full of ultra-processed foods. So fill your cart with the good stuff first.
Use shortcuts to make it easier to cook at home
Cooking every day can be a lot. I ran NPR’s food vertical for nearly a decade and I still don’t cook daily. But there are some shortcuts you can use to make home cooking less of a burden – especially if you’re not used to cooking from scratch.
For starters, try mastering five recipes that you and your family like and rotate through them, suggests Duran of Cooking Matters. The group’s website offers lots of simple recipes you can make quickly – choose from 15, 30 or 45 minutes. Try cooking once and eating several times by doubling the recipe and storing the leftovers in the fridge or freezer, he says.
For instance, a big pot of beans can add protein and fiber to several meals throughout the week. Throw those beans over rice in an insulated container and that can be school lunch, too.
This kind of meal prepping is popular – find inspiration and recipes from online influencers like meal prepper Kevin Curry of Fit Men Cook. Another way to make family meals easier is to cook a base ingredient once — say chicken breasts — and incorporate it into multiple recipes throughout the week. Find more family cooking tips here.
Don’t try to be perfect. Aim for the 80/20 rule
Life happens. Sometimes, the boxed mac and cheese is what’s for dinner. And that’s fine. “I don’t want to shame people about what they’re eating, especially parents. Do your best,” says Duran.
Gardner says it’s OK to indulge in less-than-ideal foods every now and then. He points to the philosophy embraced by his favorite chef: the “80/20” rule. “She eats very intentionally 80% of the time, and 20% of the time she has fun with food, because food brings us joy.”
Think of fruits and vegetables, beans and legumes, lean meats and dairy as the basis of your family’s diet. And if you happen to sneak in a little stabilizer-laden ice cream bar every now and then? So be it.
Kid-friendly substitutions for favorite foods
Pay attention to the foods your kids eat the most of and clamor for often and try to have healthier versions on hand. These kinds of replacements can add up to a healthier diet overall. Here’s a few to try.