Plant-forward diet: a helpful approach to healthy family meals

Smoothie in two mason jars made with berries and kiwi

There’s no shortage of advice when it comes to eating.

So much so, it’s easy to find ourselves feeling both confused and overwhelmed.

As parents, we’re eager to feed our families well. But life often gets in the way. There are so many competing demands on our time and on our pocketbooks—never mind differing household food preferences that make serving up healthy family meals both frustrating and stressful.

That’s one of the reasons why I love a plant-forward diet. It’s a flexible, doable, healthy approach to keeping a family fed.

By the end of this post you’ll have a good sense of plant-based eating. You’ll also be well versed on the amazing benefits of this dietary approach.

Ready to get served up a plate full of helpful info?

Woman and young child preparing a plant-based meal together in the kitchen with text overlay stating: Plant-forward diet: a flexible approach to healthy family meals

What is a plant-forward diet?

You’ve likely already heard of plant-based diets. These are eating approaches, such as vegan and vegetarian diets, that favour plant over animal food sources.

While vegans avoid all animal-derived food products, vegetarians exclude meat (think flesh from four-legged animals) but sometimes incorporate others types of animal food products. For example, a vegetarian diet may include dairy, eggs, and/or fish.

The term “plant-based diet” can be used broadly to include vegan and vegetarian diets but also, more specifically, can refer to a pattern of eating that emphasizes eating plant sources.

In other words, the term “plant-based diet” has two potential usages:

  1. Umbrella term: refers to different dietary approaches (e.g., vegetarian, vegan, and plant based)
  2. Specific term: indicates a diet that prioritizes plants but still includes animal-based foods, thereby distinguishing it from vegan and vegetarian diet

In this blog post, we’ll be mostly focusing on the specific definition—how to dish up more plant-based foods onto our family plates without the need to eliminate animal food products.

Also, I’ll be using the terms “plant-based” and “plant-forward” interchangeably.

While opinions differ over the correct usage of these expressions, “plant-based” and “plant-forward” share a similar essence— that is, they both refer to a flexible eating approach that favours plants but doesn’t exclude animal-based foods.

With that potentially confusing bit of terminology out of the way, let’s learn more about plant-based eating!

We’ll start with the types of foods you can expect to find in a plant-forward diet. And here’s a hint. It’s a lot more diverse than many people think!

Healthy plant-based breakfast. Woman in sweater and ripped jeans holding a healthy bowl of plant-based breakfast oatmeal with figs, berries, and hazelnuts.
Photo by sonyakamoz

What does a plant-forward diet include?

Plant-based diets have changed considerably over the years.

I remember my first stab at vegetarianism back in my teen years. I grew up in a small town where restaurant options were pretty limited and home fare usually consisted of a meat or fish main with a scoop of frozen veggies on the side.

Needless to say, the options for an aspiring vegetarian were not all that appealing.

However, this situation has improved significantly over subsequent decades. There’s been an explosion of interest in plant-based eating with a plethora of online resources as well as more plant- focused options at restaurants, including eating establishments that cater to families.

So, rather than having to fill your plate with iceberg lettuce and frozen peas, modern plant-forward eating offers a wide range of foods to add to your snacks and meals, including:

And remember—this isn’t about only eating these foods but rather working more of these nutrient powerhouses into your and your family’s diet.

Now that we have a better sense of what’s included in a plant-based diet, let’s dive into the benefits of this dietary approach.

Blank notepad surrounded by plant-forward food options on a wooden table
Photo by gorchittza2012

Why eat a plant-forward diet?

A growing body of research supports the benefits of plant-forward eating.

And given this wealth of evidence, multiple national dietary guidelines now emphasize plant-based foods.

For example, the latest version of the Canada Food Guide encourages Canadians to eat more plants. These guidelines include filling half your plate with fruit and vegetables, one quarter with whole grains, and the remaining quarter with protein either from plant or animal origins.

The current U.S. dietary guideline follows similar principles.

So, what are the benefits behind this growing push toward plant-forward eating?

We’ll look at four key advantages of plant-based eating below.

Health benefits

Eating plant-based foods is good for your health. This includes a lowered risk for:

  • Obesity
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Elevated blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Heart disease
  • Stroke
  • Dementia
  • Multiple cancers

Why all these health perks? Research suggests the health perks arise from nutritional differences between animal- and plant-based foods.

Animal products are good sources of dietary protein, as well as certain minerals and vitamins. However, animal food sources often contain more saturated fat and cholesterol than their plant-based equivalents.

Animal products also fall short as sources of fibre and they lack the wider array of vitamins, minerals—as well as antioxidants—offered by plant-based foods.

Eat more plant-based foods concept with fruits and vegetables on wooden table around a heart-shaped bowl containing more vegetables and a measuring tape.
Photo by Davizro

Environmental and ethical benefits

Plant-forward diets are better for the environment. More specifically, producing plant-based foods usually requires less energy, water, and land use than animal equivalents.

And this positive environmental impact is amplified when we pair a plant-forward diet with other ways to lower our ecological footprint such as reducing food packaging and cutting down food waste.

For some people, eating fewer animal products is also an ethical choice—one based on concerns about the fair treatment of livestock. In this case, eating a plant forward diet provides an opportunity to better align eating practices with personal values.

Increased flexibility

A plant-forward diet is particularly appealing for busy families. I mean getting food on the table is already hard enough without added pressure, right?

There are no strict rules when it comes to a plant-based eating. This includes no daily calorie or nutrient budgets to maintain—making it easy to adapt the plant-forward approach to unique dietary needs, preferences, and traditions.

Lots of flexibility also means no need to give up your favourite foods and no guilt about falling short!

A plant-based diet is also more sustainable for most families in the long run.

All or nothing dietary approaches, such as eliminating animal products entirely, can be hard to implement—never mind maintain—especially when you’re trying to feed a family.

Lovely African American family making healthy plant-forward dinner together.
Photo by Prostock-studio

Save money

Feeding a family is challenging. This is especially true when we take into account rising food costs.

While a plant-based diet may seem more expensive, it’s actually cost saving. This is especially true when it comes to plant-based protein sources.

For example. the legume family offers a great nutritional punch for the cost. And there are a growing number of helpful resources online for family friendly legume-based meals, such as this one on pulses and this one on tofu.

Other plant-based options, such as fruit and vegetables can really hike up grocery bills. But there are strategies to minimize the cost such as buying locally and seasonally. Buying frozen fruit and vegetables is another helpful strategy—one that lowers cost and food wastage while still providing a healthy alternative.

Other strategies, such as purchasing nuts and seeds in bulk, can help minimize the cost of food.

Not all plant-forward diets are healthy

Plant-based foods are often a great nutritious choice. But a word of caution.

The growing demand for plant-based foods—including non-animal sources of protein—has brought a variety of food products to grocery store shelves.

However, not all plant-based food products are equal in their health benefits. In fact, some plant-based foods can be highly processed with levels of saturated fat, cholesterol, and salt that easily rival meat alternatives. Added sugar is also commonly found in certain plant-based foods.

While a diet consisting solely of fruit juice, veggie straws, french fries, and white bread is technically plant-based, I think we can all agree that this diet falls short of nutritional requirements.

However, if these are the only foods your child eats—take heart!

The information provided, here, is not intended to make you feel guilty. Rather, it’s intended to help you wade through the murky intersection of ever changing dietary advice, the overabundance of food products, and the confusing (and not necessarily accurate) nutrition claims used by food advertisers.

Picky eating is a common and frustrating challenge many if not most parents face. Know that you’re not alone and that there are steps we parents can take—tips to gently guide our children towards more diverse diets.

And there’s more good news! Research suggests that even adopting a nutritious plant-rich diet later in life offers multiple health benefits —including a longer lifespan.

So, please don’t get discouraged!

Rather I encourage you focus on moving your family, one small step at a time, towards a healthier, less stressful, and sustainable approach to eating.

Young mother and her son giving high five after preparing a plant-based smoothie together in the kitchen at home.
Photo by nensuria

How to include more plants in your family’s diet

Okay, so we’ve covered a lot of ground.

This includes defining plant-forward (aka plant-based) eating along with the key benefits of this dietary approach.

But you may be wondering—how do I incorporate more plants into my family’s diet?

Fortunately, there are lots of ways!

Increasing your family’s plant-based food intake doesn’t need to be an onerous process. In fact, making small changes is the best way to start—and sustain—new lifestyle habits.

Here are a list of possible first steps to get your family’s plant-forward journey started:

  1. Find good online resources for plant-based recipes. For example, the Forks Over Knives website and Guelph Family Health Study online recipe book are great places to start.
  2. Host a “meatless Monday” or other animal-free meal once weekly
  3. Try a family-style meal where food is served in passable bowls rather than individually plated. This approach to meals gives every family member a choice between options such as beans or ground beef on their tacos.
  4. Make a pizza or other dish with half meat and half vegetables. Similar to family-style eating, this is another way to prepare a single family meals that exposes kids to new foods while still offering preferred options.
  5. Add fruit or vegetables to breakfast. Diced apple, pear, peach or banana are delicious additions to oatmeal, cereal, waffles, or yoghurt. And vegetables? Bake a zucchini loaf or toss some vegetables into an omelette.
  6. Experiment with whole grain baking. Swap whole wheat flour for white flour or use a combination of the two.
  7. Enjoy a smoothie. There are so many options to choose from including a variety of plant-based beverages (e.g., almond, coconut, oat, soy), various fruit and vegetables, as well as other extras such as oats, raw nuts, nut butters, tofu, and chia seeds.
Example of plant-forward eating. Granola with fresh berries in bowls on cutting board placed on stone table,
Photo by Nadianb

Take a step toward plant-forward eating

Feeding a family isn’t easy!

And it’s an ever changing target. Tastes evolve and challenging life periods arise when time is extra short and budgets super tight.

Importantly, there is no perfect dietary approach. But armed with knowledge, patience and willingness to experiment, you are well on your way to finding an eating strategy that both fits well with your family priorities and is sustainable in the long run.

So, be kind to yourself!

You don’t need to follow a strict plant-based diet to reap the benefits. And this is all the more reason to celebrate the little dietary victories along the way and to remind yourself that life is a work in progress, healthy eating included.

So, what’s the next step you can take towards including more plants in your family’s diet?

I’d love to hear from you!

What are your current dietary goals for your family? Does this include eating more plant-based foods?

What’s working and what’s getting in the way of your household enjoying healthier family meals?

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