How to Make Heart Healthy Meals Your Whole Family Will (Probably) Eat

Earlier this week the lovely ladies on the Taming Crazy podcast talked about heart disease in women and reviewed my 30-Minute Heart Healthy Cookbook*. I listened and enjoyed their casual banter about the realities of midlife for women. It was like having coffee with friends.

One comment about the cookbook caught my attention: One of the hosts said that the cookbook recipes looked good but that her teenaged children likely wouldn’t eat many of them.

Can you relate? I can!

I’ve heard this from clients too: If someone in your home has a chronic condition like high blood pressure or heart disease, but you’re also feeding children, teens, young adults, or even full-fledged grownups who aren’t keen on veggies, beans, or fish, you may be struggling to please everyone and feeling like a short-order cook.  

This is a problem we can solve! The whole family can eat the same meal, perhaps with variations for those who have different priorities and preferences. And I don’t know your family, so no guarantees, but you should be able to do this in a way that won’t send them running from the table in search of something else, at least not every night! 

I have three strategies for this. Do (serve) it yourself meals, mixed dishes with a satisfying punch, and strategic sides. We’ve got this.

1. Do (serve) It Yourself Meals

Try using meals that can be served deconstructed, so everyone can choose what they like. Examples, with recipes from my cookbook in italics for those who have it.

  • Do It Yourself (DIY) Tacos/Burritos: The kids can stuff more cheese and chicken into a tortilla, while a family member who wants to address high cholesterol may use more beans and avocado. Have fun with odds and ends from the fridge – leftover stir-fry, chicken, cashews… get creative. If it doesn’t feel authentic, just call it a wrap! taco night

Grilled Salmon Taco Party

  • DIY Salads: Make your own salad bar. Vegetables are a great start, but get creative with add-ins like pumpkin seeds, chickpeas, goat cheese, hummus, and more. 

Farro and Vegetable Rainbow Bowl,
served deconstructed if you have choosy eaters 

  • DIY Bowls: Like salads, but over a grain like quinoa or brown rice for heartier appetites. 

Lemon Tahini and Tofu Energy Bowl

  • DIY pizza: Skip the pepperoni and top with chicken, roasted vegetables, shrimp… Bonus points for whole grain crusts like pitas, English muffins, or sprouted grain toast

Sprouted Grain Pizza Toast 

  • Sheet Pan Meals (like these). Add meal components to a couple of baking sheets and let them roast away in the oven. There are countless variations on the Internet. Let family members serve themselves whichever ingredients they like. 

Chili Salmon Sheet Pan Dinner 

2. Mixed Dishes With a Satisfying Punch 

The second strategy is to use richer, satisfying foods like nuts, cheese, pasta, or meat to jazz up those lighter, plant-based ingredients that characterize heart-healthier eating patterns: vegetables, fruit, and legumes. Balance is the theme here. Examples:

  • Nuts: A handful for a snack is great, but you can do so much more with these little heart-health boosters. Making a stir-fry? Add chopped cashews or peanuts. Try “breading” fish with crushed nuts 一 I love pecans for this. Or make a dreamy, creamy nut-based sauce, as in this Easy 5-Min Cashew Alfredo Sauce with Roasted Mushroom Pasta (recipe from dietitian Desiree Nelson). 

Crunchy Peanut Fried Rice
Pecan-Crusted Catfish with Roasted Romaine
Chili Chicken, Peppers, and Corn
Pasta with Greens and Beans
(sauce is blended walnuts, ricotta, and parmesan)
Broccoli and Pasta with Peanut Sauce

  • Cheese(!) I know cheese delivers saturated fat and sodium, but this one of the food sources of saturated fat that the Canadian Cardiovascular Society Guidelines says “have not been reliably associated with harm.” I think of it as neutral for cardiovascular health, not harmful, and it also delivers calcium, protein, and most importantly, flavour, so use a little to jazz up your salads, beans, veggies, and more.  

Pear and Pumpkin Seed Salad
Sweet Spot Lentil Salad
Black Bean Quesadillas
Open-Faced Lemon-Pepper Tuna Melt

  • Pasta(!) I know, right? I’m blowing your mind. Who doesn’t love pasta? The trick for the heart-conscious eater is to aim for that “half your plate” veggies ideal. Often when people put vegetables in their pasta, it’s still 90% pasta. Instead, think of the pasta as a vehicle for delivering roasted peppers, sun-dried tomatoes, sautéed mushrooms, wilted spinach, and more. In my house, the adults tend to serve themselves more of the veggies, while the kids go for more noodles. (Which is fine!)  pasta

Roasted Tomato and Chicken Pasta
Arugula Pasta Salad with Chicken
“Home Late” Pantry Tilapia with Veggie Pasta
Mushroom Bolognese

  • Meat(also !) Just use mostly fresh versus processed meat, and again, still aim to balance with that half-plate or so of veggies. Most of the meat dishes in my cookbook have a scant two to three ounces (60-90g) of meat per person, often supplemented with lentils or beans, so it’s more of a condiment than the main event.

Mango and Pork Stirfry
Southwest Steak Skillet
Seared Steak and Bok Choy Salad
Sun-Dried Tomato Turkey Burgers

3. Strategic Sides 

A quick and easy side can help round out whatever you’re planning to make:

  • If you’re planning a vegetarian meal, but someone in the family prefers meat, just prepare a simple piece of fish or chicken on the side to go with it. (Or have them do it themselves!) salad with side salmon

Rosemary-Lemon Salmon
Pan-Seared Chicken
Grilled Garlic-Lime Chicken
Pan-Seared Halibut with Chimichurri
(just do the fish, assuming you’re
using it as a side, and any fish will do!)

  • Need more veggies to get to that half-plate? Raw carrots, baby cucumbers, and cherry tomatoes are a simple solution, but roasting vegetables isn’t much harder, and can be so much more satisfying! Or pan-fry a side of veggies in olive oil, a cinch with pre-washed spinach or sliced mushrooms. 

Simple Roasted Peppers
Life Changing Roasted Cauliflower
Umami Mushrooms
Sautéed Spinach with Pumpkin Seeds
Hearty Mashed potatoes

  • Want to boost your whole grain intake, but bored with brown rice and quinoa? Try a grain with a hearty texture like barley, farro, or bulgur, flavouring by cooking in reduced-sodium broth, tomatoes and/or wine.

Middle Eastern Bulgar Pilaf

Middle Eastern Bulgur Pilaf, photo by Jayne Thirsk 

Making heart-healthy food that appeals to the whole family isn’t much more work, and it’s worth it! People don’t tend to stick with new habits unless they’re intrinsically enjoyable, so making satisfying food helps everyone. And heart disease runs in families and takes decades to develop, so starting your kids on healthier eating habits earlier in life makes sense anyhow. 

What’s your strategy for feeding family members with different priorities and preferences? Join the conversation on Facebook.

* That’s an affiliate link to the cookbook. That means if you buy it through that link Amazon shares a small commission with me, at no extra cost to you.

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