One of the main casualties of our time-crunched, go-go-go lifestyle is the healthy meal. We want to do it all, have it all, and – most importantly – we want our kids to have every opportunity anyone could dream up for them.
A few drive-thrus here and a couple frozen dinners there make this all possible, and what’s the harm in that? And yet, more than a few skipped breakfasts later we’ve landed ourselves in one heck of a health crisis. The adult population of America is overweight to the tune of 61 percent, and guess what?
We’ve managed to pass this unfortunate legacy on to our kids. For the first time ever, American children are suffering health problems associated with poor food choices – namely obesity, and accompanying that, Type II diabetes (almost unheard of in children even 10 years ago that it was often referred to as “adult onset diabetes”).
Beyond the health risks, several studies over the last 10 years have shown that our eat-and-run lifestyle also negatively impacts our children’s performance in school. The 2005 Food and Drug Administration’s Dietary Guidelines were issued in January with several directives specifically for children and the complex needs of their growing bodies and minds.
The guidelines refer to “a preponderance of scientific evidence for lowering risk of chronic disease and promoting health,” but it all comes down to this: what a body and mind are capable of is a direct result of what gets put in the mouth.
Yes, the saying is true: you are what you eat.
We’ve all heard that a balanced breakfast is the most important meal, and guess what? Researchers have proven that children who eat a complete, nutritious breakfast versus a partial one make fewer mistakes in their studies, and kids who have a well-balanced breakfast show a general increase in math and reading scores and perform better in memory and cognitive speed tests. Easy enough, you say – we’ll grab a muffin on the way to school. Not so fast.
The operative words here are “nutritious” and “well-balanced.” Lisa High, M.S., R.D., a clinical nutritionist with Wild Oats, makes these suggestions: “Start with a good source of fiber. Generally your fiber-rich foods are the more natural, healthy plant foods – whole wheat bread, soy patties.
Also important is a source of protein because protein tends to stick with you longer since it takes longer to digest. And then to round it out, fresh produce.” She adds, “Kids are looking for something that tastes good, and parents are looking for something that’s fast. That’s why cereal is a good option, too. Stick with the whole grain varieties and add a boiled egg as your protein source,” High suggests.
Variety is the Spice of Life
According to Andrea Klint, a registered dietitian with the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt, the best way for children (and adults!) to achieve overall health is with a well-balanced diet and exercise.
“The most important thing in a well-balanced diet for kids is variety,” asserts Klint. “There isn’t one food group that’s more important than another.” Klint comments that one of the biggest problems she sees in children is that they don’t eat enough fruit and vegetables, which are rich in essential vitamins, minerals and nutrients that the other food groups can’t provide.
“The other big problem I see in kids’ diets is too many empty calories from high sugar drinks,” says Klint. She adds that not only are these items devoid of nutritional value, they are also pushing out the good stuff. “Sodas, juice, Kool Aid – we’re finding that kids’ calcium intake is low because they are drinking these things instead of milk. And the empty calories from these drinks can fill kids up at meals so they don’t eat as much.”
Wild Oats recently started a “Super Foods” campaign to promote variety and wise food choices. “There are brochures in the stores explaining what the ‘super foods’ are,” says High, “and also shelf signs that point out these food items as you’re shopping.”
Beware of Marketing
Parents often mistake sugary drinks for nutritious fruit servings. A little bit of creative marketing by food manufacturers – “Contains 100 percent of Vitamin C!” and “Good Source of eight Vitamins and Minerals” – can put a healthy spin on almost any food or drink. Klint says it’s important to be aware of the source of this information and to expect several nutritional benefits out of a food item. “Read labels,” she says. “
It gets confusing with so many products marketing themselves as healthy, so really look at the labels and see what nutritional value they actually offer.” Also, beware of fruit juice – just because it’s healthier than soda, kids shouldn’t have free reign to drink as much as they want. Klint recommends an intake of no more than “four to eight ounces a day, depending on the child’s age,” and adds, “I’d rather have a child get their vitamin C from an orange then from a drink; with the orange they’ll get fiber and other benefits the drink can’t offer.”
High agrees that it’s hard to recognize the hidden sugars in foods. “They go by so many different names – brown rice syrup, high-fructose corn syrup … basically watch out for any ingredient ending in “ose.” That’s sugar, and it’s empty, added calories.” She cites yogurt and soy milk as examples of products which seem really healthy but often have a lot of added sugars. “Buy unsweetened soy milk, and buy plain yogurt. Sweeten the yogurt naturally with some fruit, or 100 percent fruit preserves. You can have your kids add a little crunchy cereal, even a little of the sweetened variety is going to be healthier than a big bowl of sweetened cereal or sweetened yogurt.”
Change Your Life
Don’t think you have time to plan, shop for and prepare nutritious meals consistently? Kate Satz is here to help. Satz is the co-owner of Plumgood Food, Nashville’s first online organic and natural grocery store. Satz opened Plumgood Food (www.plumgoodfood.com) last October, inspired by a weekly delivery service she used when her family lived in San Francisco.
“It didn’t take long after having my first child to realize that this sort of service is great. You don’t have to schlep the kids in and out of the grocery store, and this is especially good when they get old enough to be marketed to. With online shopping you’re not as vulnerable to all the ‘Mommy, can I have …?’ And it’s easier to avoid the impulse buys.”
Shopping with Plumgood is simple – choose from the abundance of organic and natural foods on the website, and Plumgood will deliver directly to your door on a specified day of the week. Says Satz, “Our foods have no junk sugars, no hormones, no antibiotics. We’re also getting ready to roll out a selection of wheat-free and dairy-free products for people with allergies or special needs.
Shopping this way takes the worry out of what to feed your kids. You know what you’re getting.” They also have some great healthy snack options for kids, and they’re getting ready to offer prepared foods like lasagna and soups to cater to families in need of fast, nutritious food.
High’s advice for a parent trying to get their kids to eat healthy? Keep trying. She cites recent research finding that kids will generally eat healthy foods if they are consistently available to them. “Be patient. Forcing a food on a kid creates an aversion to it.
Sometimes it takes up to 20 tries before a person develops a taste for something, so don’t give up.” She also offers that how you serve the food can help. “Be creative. Maybe purÃ©e some vegetables and add them to a pasta sauce, or offer a fruit smoothie.” Klint reiterates that the most important thing parents can do to improve their children’s eating habits is to make the effort. “You need to be committed to your children’s healthy lifestyle.
You have to evaluate the attitude toward food in your home and modify your cooking habits. And you have to realize that kids learn from watching their parents. It’s hard for a kid to think it’s important to eat fruit and vegetables if they don’t see their parents eating fruit and vegetables.” Klint also says to start early. Teach them while they’re young so that healthy eating is a habit by the time they’re old enough to think of feeding their green beans to the dog.
Jen Frisvold is a mother, writer and editor. She lives in Nashville with her family.