Set the Table Tulsa: Family Follow-Up

Last month two families, the Mares family and the Wilson family, graciously volunteered to take the Global Gardens “Set the Table, Tulsa” challenge to change their eating habits. The challenge from Global Gardens is for families to take the time to sit down together for dinner at least four times a week. You can read about the two families and their obstacles in the October issue on our website at This month, we asked Kelley Ward, a family and health writer, nurse and Ph.D. in child development and family relations, to help Vanesa Mares with questions she had about organizing family meals, cooking healthy food and providing a variety of foods for her family. Vanesa’s obstacles were very similar to Maura Wilson’s obstacle about organization and meal-planning. – B.C.

In October, Vanesa said her biggest obstacle to dinnertime is “deciding what to prepare.” As a work-from-home mom of three boys, I know how challenging meal preparation can be. As a type 1 diabetic, I have formed some healthy meal planning and preparation habits that I wanted to share with Vanesa. Vanesa agreed, and we decided to meet at Reasor’s Foods so she could get a first-hand look at how simple it can be to choose healthier groceries for her family.

Here are some of the ways Vanesa learned how to make her meals healthier so she could spend less time worrying about meal preparation and more time interacting with her family.

Menu planning.

Vanesa admits that nearly every day she asks Marco what he wants her to serve for dinner. I suggested that she ask Marco to choose one dinnertime meal a week to give both of them a break from planning dinner and add some variety to the weekly dinnertime meals. I also suggested she could have her kids choose one meal a week or add a fun meal to the week such as Backwards Day where traditional dinner options are served at breakfast and traditional breakfast options are served for dinner. After talking to Marco about my idea, Vanesa said, “He [Marco] agreed to suggesting meals two times a week and more if needed.” In addition, Vanesa has decided to use a monthly planner to write down her meals, after reading about this on Pinterest.

Keep it simple.

Vanesa says her family really enjoys eating sandwiches for lunch. The problem is she uses a lot of oil to prepare the lunchmeat and then heats the sandwich in a frying pan to melt the cheese. She wanted an idea on how she could make the sandwiches her kids love healthier. I suggested she cook her sandwiches in a grill press or George Foreman grill using non-stick cooking spray or olive oil. Grill presses (you can even use your waffle iron) give sandwiches the toasted outside with melted cheese her family enjoys without the need for unhealthy amounts of cooking oil. A few days after our shopping trip Vanesa said, “I’m going to try what you’ve suggested. The methods seem very easy (nothing to it), just a little time and patience. I have not tried this yet, but can’t wait. I normally do not like change, but for this I really am kind of excited.”

Choose less processed foods.

It was important to Vanesa to learn to read food labels so she could learn more about processed foods. We started by having her pick out a few items that she typically buys for her family. Vanesa’s items included:  bologna, canned Alfredo sauce and sour cream. I showed Vanesa how to read a food label, specifically the list of ingredients. Once she read the list of ingredients for the bologna and ham she normally buys, she was stunned.

“I was shocked to see some of the foods I was eating had yuck in them,” Vanesa said, “and that I didn’t even know all the crazy stuff put into it [foods]. I couldn’t even pronounce all of the ingredients listed.”  I showed her how to choose healthy lunchmeat alternatives (without preservatives — nitrites or nitrates), and she was glad to know there were healthier options.

In the dairy section, Vansea said her family loves adding sour cream to their foods. However, after reading the list of ingredients on her favorite sour cream label, she couldn’t believe the list of ingredients. I suggested she substitute plain Greek yogurt for sour cream in her recipes because the consistency of Greek yogurt is creamy like sour cream and has a similar tart flavor. The difference is Greek yogurt is made from three ingredients — milk, cream, and an active culture — while sour cream is made with cultured cream, grade A whey, modified food starch, sodium phosphate, sodium citrate, guar gum, carageenan, calcium sulface, potassium sorbate (preservative) and locust bean gum.

Healthy cooking oils.

It was also important to Vanesa to learn which cooking oils were the healthiest to use when preparing foods. I created a handout for Vanesa highlighting the differences between commonly used cooking oils. (To see the handout, go to Furthermore, I explained the differences in how oils are produced and packaged focusing on the oils that are processed at a cooler temperature and refined such as avocado and olive oil. Vanesa said, “I want to try extra virgin olive oil and avocado oil. I already have a couple recipes in mind I can try with EVOO.”

Before our trip to Reasor’s, Vanesa said, “I was dreading meeting with you. I thought I was going to have to completely change the foods my family ate and how we ate. That was not the case at all. You were very kind and gave endless suggestions. You still encouraged us to eat the meals we normally do, just healthier. You helped me to wonder what exactly I was feeding my family and to be more cautious of food labels.”

Kelley Ward, PhD, RN, C is a local freelance writer and mom of 3 active boys. As a registered nurse and child development and family relations researcher, she writes on a variety of topics related to parenting, child development, and healthy living.  

Categories: Food