I’m looking for heart healthy meal ideas that are family friendly and easy to make.
Thank you for your letter. I’m happy to help.
You are in luck today. Way back in the mid-nineties, when President Clinton was working to reform health care and cardiac catheterization with stents was just on the rise, I took my first post-college graduation job in Washington, DC as a cardiac researcher.
I know, it seems like the perfect gig for a French and political science major who is squeamish about blood, right?
I did almost barf watching the open-heart surgery video during training, but other than that, the job ended up being a great fit. The philosophy of the consulting firm where I was working was that they could teach industry (i.e., health care), as long as their hires could do the research and writing work.
I learned a lot of lessons about perseverance from that job, and got to talk to industry leaders in health care and cardiovascular medicine along the way. I was surprised to find that my favorite part of the job was actually studying the clinical procedures; as long as I didn’t have to see them—blood, ack!—they were fascinating.
My expertise developed in the area of cardiac rehabilitation and congestive heart failure (CHF) care, although I performed enough literature searches and wrote enough papers about everything from billing to diet to pre-op practices that I got a good breadth of knowledge on heart health, and an incredible respect for our amazing human cardiovascular system.
With rehab and CHF care, much attention is paid to the psychological demands of making behavior change, when ended up leading to me pursuing my master’s degree and diving deeper into behavioral change research. So, today, in answering your letter, I’m actually relying on twenty years worth of interest, research, and work. Lucky you!
Adopting any kind of behavior change, particularly one in diet, can be difficult. Reducing fat, salt, and sugar all at once can be daunting. As I recommended when helping a reader to find some tasty vegan breakfasts for health reasons, you’ve got to be patient and gentle with yourself as you experiment with ingredient substitutions and avoid old favorites.
Start with addition instead of subtraction. Begin to infuse your meals with more vegetables and whole grains, and choose heart-healthy fats (like olive oil) whenever possible. Make as much homemade food as you can, and rely less on processed/boxed foods to naturally reduce salt. Don’t worry as much about what you can’t eat, just bulk up your meals with plant-based foods and fibers.
It’s amazing what you can throw into chili, tacos, pizza sauce, etc., if you want to be creative. Don’t make a big deal about how you are making “healthy” food, just make the foods everyone loves with more of the good stuff thrown in.
If your kids like oatmeal in the morning, make a big pot of it on Sunday, and heat it up throughout the week. That’s a great heart healthy start for everyone. Hone in on the veggies you and your family like best, and make them regularly, pairing them with new or less-liked vegetables.
Shifting your palate is the key here. If you can eat more of the foods that are healthy and fill up on those, you have less need for unhealthy choices, and you begin to shift the taste desires of you and your family over time.
As for specific recipes, there is no need for me to reinvent the wheel. A quick trip to the American Heart Association’s Simple Cooking and Recipes page has tons of terrific options, all of which meet the AHA’s standards for heart health. The slow cooker section seems particularly family-friendly, both because of the flavors chosen and the ease of preparation for the cook. I doubt anyone in your family would feel cheated eating these BBQ Pulled Pork Sliders with Homemade Potato Chips, for example. That might be on my dinner rotation this week!
Good luck making some fun new heart-healthy meals, and remember: eating right is only one critical part of maintaining a healthy cardiovascular system. Regular exercise, not smoking, and keeping your stress level down/reducing stress are critical components to keeping your heart strong. With that in mind, don’t stress out when updating your family meal plan: make small steps, be patient, and know that every effort you make to move in a healthy direction is a good one.