The Care & Feeding of
…begins at home with parents who must develop commonsense nutritional strategies
that will keep their offspring from becoming part of the childhood obesity epidemic.
Here is some help in getting started.
It’s another weekday. In between checking homework and searching for your black pumps, you slap together mystery-meat sandwiches for the kids’ lunches and dash out the door…with a bagel in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other.
Sound familiar? You’re not alone. Millions of Americans feel too rushed to make healthy eating a priority. Sure, you care about your children’s well-being. But let’s face it: It’s easier to give in to their cries for fast-food burgers than to figure out how to have them eat—and enjoy—healthier meals.
When you’re all going full throttle, though, it’s more important than ever to eat well. We learn it in grade school: Foods rich in vitamins, minerals and protein—such as fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, dairy products, fish, nuts and seeds—assure that children get the nutrients they need to build strong bones and muscles. Looking beyond the taco stand also helps kids maintain a healthy weight and reduce their risk of developing chronic disease later on.
Problem is, “most kids aren’t getting wholesome foods. They’re getting doughnuts and French fries, and it’s taking a terrible toll,” says David L. Katz, MD, MPH, associate professor of public health at Yale University School of Medicine and director of the school’s Prevention Research Center, as well as author of The Way to Eat: A Six-Step Path to Lifelong Weight Control (Sourcebooks). “Children growing up in the United States today will suffer more chronic disease and premature death over their lifetimes from eating badly and not exercising than from alcohol, tobacco and drug use combined.”
The latest report from the US Surgeon General states that 13% of kids six to 11 and 14% of those 12 to 19 were overweight in 1999—numbers that nearly tripled over the previous two decades.
Often with childhood obesity comes type 2 diabetes, previously called “adult-onset diabetes” until it became a pediatric epidemic. Heart disease, stroke and cancer join high blood pressure, asthma, lack of concentration, imbalanced energy levels, liver damage and other conditions that are at least partially rooted in poor childhood eating habits. Then there are emotional consequences, such as depression, low self-esteem and eating disorders. The list goes on.
Maybe you blame yourself for your kids’ poor diet, thinking, “I don’t take time to shop for and prepare healthy meals for them.” Or perhaps you don’t feel you can afford the cost of fresh and organic products. It’s no surprise if you’re confused by all the conflicting information out there about what’s healthy and what’s not.
On top of that, bad dietary choices are simply everywhere—high-calorie, over-processed foods in grocery stores, vending machines and many school cafeterias. And what about the fast-food restaurants, with their action toys and playgrounds enticing kids? Let’s not forget the onslaught of advertising, hypnotizing your children to beg you for that chocolate cereal or new soft drink.
“It’s impossible to completely control what my kids eat,” says Valerie Neill of Portland, Oregon.
“They’ve been exposed to treats at friends’ homes and school.” Schools all over the country tempt children with their greasy entrées and sugary desserts (although that’s starting to change), and peer pressure to eat what’s popular certainly doesn’t help: “The best thing is not to have much of that stuff in the house.” Neill may be one of the city’s top pastry chefs, but this slim, petite mother and her husband, Haukur Astvaldsson, serve mostly healthy meals to their twin toddlers and two teens. “We don’t want to be too strict about no treats or they’ll become ‘forbidden fruit,’” she says. “Everything in moderation. It’s more realistic that way.”
She’s right. Making certain foods totally off limits may make your children desire them more. Parent-child power struggles—whether you pressure them to finish their cauliflower or prohibit them from eating cookies—can trigger their rebelliousness to sneak sweets or even turn down a favorite food. So Neill keeps a variety of healthy foods around and lets her kids control what they eat.
If you want to help your children swim against the junk-food tide, you could do worse than to adopt Neill’s down-to-earth approach—especially when it comes to what you keep around the house.
“Choose foods with the most nutrients and fewest additives, in their most natural, unadulterated state—closest to the way they were harvested, like a fresh apple instead of apple sauce—then you can’t go wrong,” says Dale Figtree, PhD, nutritionist in Santa Barbara, California, and author of Eat Smarter: The Smart Choice for Healthier Kids (ZHealth Books). Stock your refrigerator with fresh, organic, pesticide-free fruits and vegetables, in a rainbow of colors; some of them should be cut up for on-the-go snacking. Opt for hormone-free milk and other dairy products “preferably from sheep or goats,” says Figtree, “because the protein and other nutrients found in their milk is closer to that of human milk and therefore easier to digest.” Try dairy alternatives, such as soy or rice milk. On your shopping list include hormone-free eggs, wild-caught fish (with omega-3 oils and no mercury), natural nut butters and, occasionally, chemical-free meat (which should be broiled, grilled or roasted—not fried). Fill your cupboards with whole grains, such as brown rice, oatmeal, quinoa, couscous and bulgur. If you bake, use flours from whole wheat, rye, rice and buckwheat.
And don’t fret over whether your children are getting enough protein. “Americans think they need to take in a lot, so they end up consuming too much of it from meat, which can result in kidney damage,” says Dulcie Ward, a registered dietitian with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in Washington, DC. “There’s plenty of protein in many plant foods—beans, grains, seeds, nuts and vegetables—which also contain excellent fiber and healthy oils.”
When it comes to calcium, the childhood years are critical for building healthy bones that will remain fracture-resistant for a lifetime. So don’t scrimp on collard and mustard greens, kale, spinach, broccoli and Brussels sprouts—not most kids’ favorites, agreed. But you can tuck them inside sandwiches, scatter them in omelets and chop them small and sprinkle them onto pizza or into spaghetti sauce. Make casseroles and salads with high-calcium navy and black turtle beans, and choose calcium-fortified orange juice and other products.
“Your children can eat as much as they want when you serve natural, wholesome foods,” says Figtree. “The fiber in these foods will fill them up before they consume too many calories. A diet with abundant, high-nutrient foods also stimulates the metabolism to work at a higher pace, so the body naturally burns off any excess calories.”
Avoid processed foods, such as refined cereal, most bread products, pasta and canned goods (except beans); “these have been stripped of their nutrients, leaving mostly empty calories,” says Figtree. The same goes for anything containing added sugar and other sweeteners (fructose, cane juice and corn syrup), natural or artificial. Instead, use fresh fruit to sweeten things up.
If you do buy packaged foods, study the labels. That’s what Pam Milberg does. The Rockville, Maryland mother of a 12- and a 14-year-old says, “I teach my kids to not only compare prices by reading labels, but also determine whether the food is low in fat and sodium—ingredients I try to keep to a minimum in our diet.” The experts agree with her. “Too much sodium can contribute to high blood pressure,” says Figtree. “High saturated fats, also present in animal products, can increase cholesterol and eventually clog the arteries. Food with added chemicals may contribute to cancer, ADD [Attention Deficit Disorder] and asthma in children.”
Then there are the trans fats, partially hydrogenated vegetable oils found in everything from fast food to margarine. “A lot of food manufacturers and restaurants promote their healthier ingredients, then process them in trans fats,” warns Figtree. “Partially hydrogenating a vegetable fat changes the molecular structure to one never before found in nature. It doesn’t fit the normal receptors in the body’s cells, and this misalignment could cause DNA damage, and possibly cancer and heart disease.”
“You have to put in extra effort to eat well, but it’s well worth it,” says David Katz. “It isn’t based on will power so much as skill power. Adults and children alike can learn the skills needed to eat better.”
While making lentil stew, Neill talks to her twins about the onions and tomatoes she’s cutting up, as one of them stands on a chair and stirs the pot. “It’s never too early to educate your kids about healthy foods,” she says.
Milberg also welcomes her daughter’s help in the kitchen: “We’ll find recipes she likes and then prepare them together. She enjoys being with me, but is also interested in how meals are made.” She and her brother may never realize, though, that their mom sometimes mixes a little brown rice in with the white. “There’s a balance between going along with what they like and introducing them to new foods,” she confides.
But don’t think you can plop a plate of okra in front of your kids when they’ve never eaten it before, and expect them to gobble it up. Gradually replace bad foods with healthy new ones. “It may take 15 to 20 exposures to a particular food before your children develop a taste for it,” says Ward.
You can serve the healthiest meals and snacks for your children, but if they see you chomping potato chips or downing cans of cola, they’re not likely to listen to your healthy-eating words. “As role models, parents have enormous influence over their children’s diets,” says Katz.
The earlier you start, the better. Because Miriam Rinaldi Goldbaum and her husband, Mauro, of New York City routinely eat organic fruits and vegetables and other wholesome foods, their 18-month-old son does, too. “It’s not just the quality of the food, but also the quality of eating it,” she says. “Our meals are always at the table, as a family, with no rushing or stress.”
Regularly scheduled, relaxing meals establish for your children a positive relationship with food.
When they grow up with pleasant and healthy eating experiences, they’ll take those with them into adulthood. As a parent, you can only hope that they’ll live long, healthy lives—and assure the same one day for their own children.