Coming to a brand new country for a year can be so exciting, but also bring challenges. Take food, for example—it’s fun to try new cuisine and be exposed to different rituals around mealtime, but it can also be tough when you miss foods from home and a struggle to create healthy eating habits. We talked to Registered Dietitian and Virginia host mom Amy Lafalce for advice on how au pairs can create a healthy relationship with food while in the USA.
Changes in eating habits are inevitable when you move to a new country to live in a new household—what are some tips to help pairs maintain a healthy lifestyle while in the USA? I recommend listening to your body as best you can. It’s normal in this situation to have meals on a different schedule, and of course to be exposed to different foods. Your hunger levels may be different, and you may want to eat more or less than what you usually eat at home. That’s okay! Listen to what your body tells you that you need. And try to be active every day. Exercise (and movement in general) helps keep your appetite steady.
What are some signs that an au pair might not be getting proper nutrition?Nutrition and hydration play an important role in how you feel. Feeling tired or light-headed could be signs that you aren’t drinking enough water or getting enough nutrition. Try to include foods from at least 2-3 food groups at each meal (fruits/vegetables, proteins, grains, dairy). And keep a water bottle on hand, especially as we approach the summer months.
During times of big changes and stress, people often use eating as a way to feel comfort. Are there healthy choices au pairs can choose during these times or other things that help provide comfort other than food? It’s perfectly normal to include food as a way to feel comfort sometimes! It’s important to have a variety of ways to manage stress and to comfort yourself. Try talking with a friend, going for a walk, listening to music, keeping a journal, or practicing yoga or meditation.
Portion sizes in the USA are notoriously large, especially at fast food restaurants. What are some strategies to avoid over-indulging? Listen to your body. Rely on your internal hunger cues as best you can when deciding how much to eat. If a restaurant meal is too large, then consider sharing it or saving some for later. And try to eat slowly. This gives your body time to realize that you’ve had enough before you overeat.
Eating healthfully while in the USA can be expensive; if au pairs are eating outside the home or buying their own ingredients to cook at home, how can they keep food costs reasonable? One of the best ways to cut down on cost is to cut down on waste. If you buy a meal that is larger than what you need in one sitting, then save some of it for the next day rather than overeating or throwing out the leftovers. If you’re buying ingredients to cook at home, then try not to buy more than what you can use before it spoils. When shopping for fruits and vegetables, consider the shelf life when you determine how much to buy. For example, potatoes, carrots, and apples will last much longer than lettuce, bananas, or berries. Also, consider buying frozen meats and frozen or canned vegetables too. They have a much longer shelf life than fresh ones and are often just as nutritious. And get creative! Vegetables that have softened over time may not be great to eat raw, but they can still be roasted in the oven or cooked into a soup. And brown bananas are perfect for smoothies!
Do you have any advice for au pairs whose host family’s eating habits are different than their own? This can be tricky. I recommend talking openly, honestly, and respectfully with your host family. Many difficulties that au pairs have involving food can be resolved with good communication. Can you accompany your host family on a grocery shopping trip so you can select some foods you like to have as well? Or can you make a list of some items you’d like to have? At the same time, this is a great time to be flexible and to try new things. Ultimately, you’ll likely have a good cultural experience if you can find a balance between having your own preferences met and stepping outside your usual habits sometimes as well.
What healthy snacks would you recommend to au pairs to help satisfy hunger during a busy day? Americans love to snack! I recommend pairing two food groups when choosing a snack. For example, an apple with a slice of cheese will be far more satisfying than an apple alone. Some of my favorite snacks are carrots with hummus, crackers with peanut butter, and trail mix. You can make trail mix by combining various foods from the pantry such as cereal, dried fruit, and nuts. One of my favorite combinations is Chex cereal, pretzels, raisins, and almonds. Sometimes I add chocolate chips too!
Favorite healthy dinner that is quick and easy to make at home? How about a quesadilla with a tortilla, refried beans, shredded cheese, and salsa? Or try making a pasta salad using whatever ingredients you have on had. For example, combine penne pasta with tomatoes, leftover cooked chicken, and grated cheese. Toss in some chopped spinach if you have it. A chilled pasta salad tastes great the next day!
Healthy ideas for satisfying a sweet tooth? Go ahead and have some dessert. Choose a small portion and enjoy it! We serve dessert most nights in my house. Some nights it’s a fruit popsicle, while other nights we have homemade brownies or ice cream. The portion size is small but satisfying. When you know that you’ll get another treat soon, the desire for a large portion diminishes.
We’d like to thank Amy for her great nutrition advice and for helping au pairs understand how to achieve healthy eating habits while in the USA!