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What's Up Magazine

Smart Foods for Kids

Jan 10, 2011 08:07PM ● By Anonymous

Obesity rates among children in the United States doubled in the last 20 years. With nearly one-third of U.S. children now considered overweight or obese, the crisis has reached epidemic proportions, say many health-care experts. Doctors and scientists aren’t the only ones troubled by this trend. Many parents and concerned adults are asking: What can we do to help prevent obesity in our children? The answer, according to the Centers for Disease Control, is to show kids healthy eating habits. For some, however, that’s not as easy as it sounds.


Setting the Standard at Home

“We as parents have the power and responsibility to help our children learn to eat healthy and make good choices,” says Linda Petursdottir, a certified holistic health counselor with the Institute of Integrative Nutrition and the owner of Simple Well Being in Bethesda. “We must make healthy eating a priority just like we make their safety a priority,” adds the former Icelandic champion gymnast and now a mother of two boys. Even if the “leading by example” part has you stumped and feeling unsure of where to begin to make changes, Petursdottir makes it seem as easy as A-B-C. Here are some key points from the wellness classes she teaches through the Montgomery County Recreation Department:

A. Begin Where You Buy

The first step in changing the way you feed your children is to become conscious of what goes in their lunchbox or snacks. Think about what you are buying at the store and ask yourself:

  • Does this product deserve my hard-earned money?
  • Am I buying it out of habit or because the label looks attractive?
  • Where does this food originate?
  • Will it add to my child’s ability to learn and play?

Next, pick one thing to change at a time, such as switching from white bread to whole grain bread, from canned fruit to fresh fruit, from super-sugary cereals to more natural varieties, from sweetened juice drinks to 100 percent juice or pure water. When you make small changes over weeks and months, you gradually develop new habits that can last a lifetime.

Get the kids involved, too. Take them grocery shopping and let them partake in the decision-making (within reason), Petursdottir suggests. Start with what they like and build on it. For example, if they like raisins, try other dried fruit such as apricots, mangoes, and figs.

B. Read Those Labels

When it comes to choosing items for a healthy snack or lunch, you are looking for products that are nutritionally dense. Too often, we fill our kids up with “empty calories” such as those found in bread, crackers, pretzels, cookies, cakes, and white rice. There is little-to-no nutritional value in these foods, says Petursdottir.

Most packaged foods have a “Nutrition Facts” label. Use this tool to make smart food choices quickly and easily. Look for these characteristics on your next trip to the grocery store:

  • Rich in nutrients (vitamins, calcium, potassium, iron, and magnesium)
  • Low in sugar (less than 8 grams per serving in cereals, for example)
  • Low in fat (especially saturated fat and 0 grams of trans fat)
  • High in fiber (a minimum of 2 grams of fiber per serving, ideally 5 or more grams)
  • Low in salt (the daily recommended value of sodium for children is 1,000 to 1,500 mg—Kraft macaroni and cheese, for example, has 550 to 700 mg of sodium per serving)

It’s not enough, however, to read just the Nutrition Facts section of the label. You also need to read the “Ingredients List.” The following ingredients are among the most questionable additives, and, not surprisingly, they are often used in foods of low nutritional value:

Trans fat (listed as partially hydrogenated oil)
A fat, oil, and shortening found in margarine, certain crackers, baked goods, icing, microwave popcorn, and fried restaurant foods.
High fructose corn syrup (HFCS)
A highly refined, artificial product that may be found in some cereals, bread, candy, condiments (such as ketchup and mayo), cookies, crackers, yogurt, cough syrup, meats, and canned fruits and vegetables.

Sodium nitrate/nitrite

A preservative, coloring, and flavoring found in some bacon, ham, hot dogs, luncheon meat, smoked fish, and corned beef.
Artificial sweeteners
Aspartame, Acesulfame-K, and saccharin are found in some diet sodas, drink mixes, gelatin desserts, low-calorie frozen desserts, salad dressings, and sweetener packets.

Artificial colors
Used in candy, soda, gelatin desserts, etc., the food colorings of particular concern are Blue 1, Blue 2, Green 3, Red 3, and Yellow 6.

Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA)
A synthetic chemical found in certain cereals, chewing gum, potato chips, and vegetable oil.

Olestra (Olean)
A fat substitute found in some potato chips.

C. Pack a Healthy Lunch

Keep lunches and snacks fun and balanced at the same time. Learn about the food groups in the Pyramid (established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, or USDA) and how to combine foods to create a balanced snack or lunch. “While it’s important to get foods from different groups in the Pyramid (vegetables, dairy, fruits, whole grains, meat/beans, and oils), it’s equally important to aim for the balance between complex carbohydrates, quality protein, and healthy fat,” explains Petursdottir.

Make it pleasing to the eye by going for the rainbow of colors. This not only looks pretty but different colors provide different nutrients. Add an extra dash of fun by using shape cutters for vegetables and offer dips (guacamole, hummus, salsa, yogurt) for the kids to dunk their veggies. But how do you get kids to eat any of these healthy dips, let alone even mention the “V” word? “Remember that children need to experience a new food seven to 12 times before they accept it. So be patient,” Petursdottir advises.

As a mom of a kindergartner and a third-grader, I can attest to this theory. Getting kids to eat fruits and vegetables really is all about trial and error…and F-U-N. As a preschooler, my daughter referred to broccoli as “little trees” and would arrange her food on the plate in the shape of a smiley face. Whatever it takes, I say. Now both of my kids rank smoked salmon, tomatoes, and mango smoothies as some of their favorite foods (although neither one has ever turned down a cookie or chocolate bar).

After conducting my own little snack study recently, it seems most kids will choose the less healthy option if given the choice—they are only human, after all. On the day I was to bring the snack for my son’s soccer team, I decided to offer Annie’s brand Cheddar Bunnies (made from organic wheat flour and lower saturated fat and sugar) instead of the always-popular Pepperidge Farm Goldfish Crackers. About 70 percent of the five-to-six-year-old teammates took a pass on the Cheddar Bunnies…but many of their three-year-old siblings were all over them. Hence, my scientific conclusion: Offer healthy options from the very beginning, when children are little. They will never know what they are missing. (And, by the way, I might have been booed off the soccer field that day if I hadn’t brought along back-up cookies.)

Another way to make it fun is to send them back to school with a cool lunch container. Let them pick their own colors and styles, and they are already bonded with the mealtime experience. Just make sure that their selection offers plenty of storage and insulation options. Fit & Fresh containers (available at K-Mart, Target, Shoppers, etc.) boast a creative kids line that keeps cold thing cold and hot stuff hot.

Now comes the tough part: what balanced meal (comprised of carbohydrates, quality protein, and healthy fat) to put in that signature lunchbox? I took a poll of some fellow local moms and they’ve done everything from wrapping up a piece of cold leftover pizza, to pouring homemade beef vegetable soup into a Thermos for their kids. Here are some sample menus from these local ladies to give you a jumpstart on the first week back to school:

Monday: Whole-wheat tortilla roll-up sandwich with organic turkey slices, and shredded romaine lettuce topped with mayonnaise made from canola oil; watermelon cubes; trail mix of dried fruits and nuts.

Tuesday: Tuna sandwich in a whole-wheat pita pocket; carrot sticks with low-fat ranch dip; applesauce.

Bean and cheese burrito; organic corn tortilla chips with salsa or guacamole; mango slices.

Almond butter and honey sandwich on sprouted wheat bread; strawberries and sliced apples.

Friday: Half of a wheat bagel with low-fat cream cheese, smoked salmon, with a face made of raisin eyes, cashew nose, and an apple-slice smile; a snack-size bag of Cheddar Bunnies.

The same guidelines hold when eating out at restaurants: Aim for a balanced meal. Most kids’ menus offer few healthy choices. Avoid fried and processed foods such as chicken nuggets or mac and cheese, no doubt a huge challenge for many parents. These are examples of foods that are very low in nutrients and high in saturated fat and calories. It’s better to order something healthier from the main menu and split it between the children or yourself and them. (Just remember to bring along your own coloring books and crayons.)

Community Involvement

The rapid increase in childhood obesity and its link to a host of health problems (including heart disease, diabetes, and cancer) has also triggered alarms among school and government officials. They, too, are seeking ways to encourage kids to make better food choices. The Obamas put in a vegetable and herb garden on the White House grounds as part of a public campaign to inspire kids and help Americans better understand where their food comes from. Maryland’s First Lady, Katie O’Malley, has followed with her own garden to promote our state’s “Grow It Eat It” campaign.

Creative, school-based programs on both sides of the bay have directly impacted local children. Jodi Risse, the supervisor of food and nutrition services for Anne Arundel County Public Schools (AACPS), has proactively initiated a number of changes, and was honored in January with a national award from the School Nutrition Association for having made “a marked difference in the school district’s child nutrition program.” One example of those changes was the addition of a permanent food station filled with fruits, vegetables, and smoothies within Annapolis High School’s after-school activity center, the Panther Café. The program was funded by a $40,000 grant from the USDA.

Students are also learning about “buying local” produce—a concept that sustainable-food advocates and environmentalists promote by emphasizing how locally sourced or processed foods tend to be fresher and have a lower carbon footprint. The Farm-to-School program and Homegrown School Lunch Week fit that concept by connecting Maryland schools to Maryland farmers. Risse implemented these programs last fall and will again this September to offer all county school students the chance to sample fresh apples, watermelon, coleslaw, and more. “By providing additional servings of fruits and vegetables grown close to home,” says Risse. “We can teach students lessons about the importance of healthy options, as well as the reduced environmental impact, while we support local farms.”

Students at Sudlerville Elementary make their own choices for healthy snacks.

Students at Sudlersville Elementary, in Queen Anne’s County on the Eastern Shore, also sampled a smorgasbord of fresh produce this past school year through the USDA’s Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program (FFVP). In this program, the fruits and vegetables must be served as a snack during the school day, outside the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs, according to John Gallagher, general manager of school services for QACPS.

“We initiated the program at Sudlersville Elementary with a buffet of fresh fruits and vegetables last September,” says Mr. Gallagher, adding that posters and materials about healthy eating alternatives also were available at the kick-off event. For the remainder of the school year, fresh produce was delivered to each classroom two days a week and served as a mid-morning snack, he explains.

“We have reapplied for the grant for Sudlersville Elementary next year,” says Mr. Gallagher, “and are hopeful that we receive the funding again. The students looked forward to the mid-morning healthy snacks.”

Fresh Start

Changing our eating habits and those of our families may sound like an insurmountable task. But as the ancient proverb states: The longest journey begins with a single step. Start small. Read those labels. Remember the fresher the food, the less it’s been processed, the better it is. As Marylanders, we are blessed with a bounty of healthy, local food options. It’s time to start counting our blessings…and our fat grams.

Something Portable & Nutritious for Grownups

Are you always eating on the run or while multi-tasking? If lack of time is one of the main reasons you forgo healthy eating, Linda Petursdottir offers these tips for busy moms, dads, and caregivers to pack themselves a healthy lunch to not only feel and look better, but to keep up with those energetic, healthy kids.

First and foremost, invest in a nice lunch bag and good-to-go containers. The newest versions of these portable wonders have a special removable ice pack that allows you to take homemade, fresh nourishment with you anywhere. No more excuses of not having access to a refrigerator or space for a bulky cooler.

What to pack for yourself? Aim for a balanced meal of complex carbohydrates (whole grains, vegetables, fruit) with some protein (beans, egg, fish, or meat), and healthy fat (olive oil, avocado, nuts, or seeds). This can be obtained easily through mixed salad greens with a variety of cut-up veggies, beans, and balsamic vinaigrette. Other lunch ideas include a veggie stir fry with brown rice and tofu; a whole grain salad (such as quinoa) with a bowl of chicken chili; or a sprouted grain sandwich with turkey, avocado, mixed greens, tomatoes, and hummus.

Jackie Janosik Buan is a frequent contributor to What’s Up?. Like most good mothers, she wants to provide healthy and appealing meals for her kids, and will continue to experiment with the Cheddar Bunnies of this world.

What’s Up? Annapolis does not give medical advice. This material is simply a discussion of current information, trends, and practices. Please seek the advice of your physician before making any changes in your lifestyle or health routine.