Parents have a new ally in the effort to clean up their kitchens and improve their children’s eating habits—and their own.
“Kids are hugely interested in the cooking shows like Iron Chef, said Jodie Shield, co-author of Healthy Eating, Healthy Weight for Kids and Teens (Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 2011) and a registered dietitian in Chicago.
Seize that as an impetus to cook and eat more at home, using vegetables and other fresh ingredients, just as the chefs do.
“What’s exciting about healthy eating is, the recommendations for most families are the same thing we keep saying,” Shield said. “But I think they’re starting to be heard more.”
A diet with total fat at 25–30 percent of calories, saturated fat less than 10 percent of calories, and cholesterol intake less than 300 mg has been shown to reduce cholesterol (the bad kind) in healthy children over age 2.
Tracking numbers like those for weeks (or even a day) isn’t realistic for most parents, let alone children. So Shield recommends referring to ChooseMyPlate.gov, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s heir to the food pyramid.
That plate visual in your mind can help your kid load it up, she said. “Portion size fits into all of this.”
Shield outlined some healthy eating habits that parents should establish (but often don’t):
—Start with dairy. “When I look at a low-fat diet, I look at dairy right away, because it’s such a big part of kids’ diets,” she said.
At age 2, most children should shift to 1 percent fat or skim milk, Shield said. “But I can tell you it doesn’t happen. Most people I talk to drink 2 percent, and 2 percent still has a lot of fat.”
An 8-oz glass of 2 percent milk has 120 calories, 5 grams total fat, 3 of which are saturated, and 20 mg of cholesterol. By comparison, skim has 80 calories, 0 grams of fat and 5 mg of cholesterol.
“If kids are drinking four cups of milk a day, it’s very healthy for them to make the change,” Shield said, “and both are equally nutritious, assuming they are fortified with vitamins A and D, as most are.”
Substitutes such as almond milk may not have the same vitamin package, she pointed out, so compare labels.
“We need vitamin D to absorb calcium, which has been a big problem. Especially in the Midwest, most people are fairly deficient. We don’t get enough sun so our bodies don’t make enough.”
—Make vegetables tasty. They don’t have to be raw, Shield said. “But you don’t have to cook them in butter. If you’re going to add fat, try olive or canola oil. It still has calories, but they’re much healthier [calories].”
She is not above cooking green beans in bacon fat—once in a while.
“I’d like to start with healthy fat, which helps with certain vitamins being absorbed, but if you give kids a little ranch dressing and they eat a few more, that’s okay, too. The point is to get them to love to eat healthy foods.”
—Direct the sweet tooth to fruits or low-fat dairy. “Fruits are fat-free and wonderful,” Shield said. And they don’t have to be organic. “There’s no science that shows organic is healthier.”
For yogurt, look for low-fat or fat-free, and consider the smaller 6-ouncers.
Don’t rule out an occasional treat such as a restaurant shake. “Some make them with 1 percent milk,” she said.
—Seek fiber; watch sugar. Soluble fiber, as in oatmeal, beans and many fruits, can make you feel more full and lower LDL, the bad cholesterol. “Oatmeal is one of the best cereals kids can eat,” Shield said. “Instant oatmeal is [okay], but get plain and add your own sugar or whatever else,” since some packets are loaded with sugar.
Half of the grains you eat should be whole grains, as in some boxed cereals. Those have insoluble fiber, which can help prevent constipation
“Here’ s a little trick parents can do as they’re reading labels. It only works if there’s no fruit in the cereal, because raisins have natural sugar, and the number on the label lumps natural and artificial sugars together.
Divide the grams of sugar by 4 to find out how many teaspoons of sugar are in a serving. Aim to keep that number under 2 teaspoons. That’s pretty generous,” Shield said.
The formula doesn’t work for yogurt and other dairy products, because they have lactose, a natural sugar. “Natural sugar isn’t the problem,” Shield said. “You’re better off looking at the ingredient list at that point, because ingredients are listed in order of dominance.”
Note that some ingredients, like corn syrup or brown rice syrup aren’t called sugar, but that's what they are. “If they’re in there, I’d like them to be one of last ingredients.”
—Choose meat, poultry and fish carefully. Opt for lean cuts of meat, such as loins and rounds. Buy skinless chicken. “Skin doubles the fat,” she said. Though they are higher in cholesterol than boneless skinless breasts, boneless skinless chicken thighs are less expensive, have more flavor and are more forgiving of novice cooks. “You can’t wreck them. They stay moist. I marinate them in olive oil, lemon juice and oregano, then bake them, and it’s so easy.”
Eat fish, rich in omega 3 fatty acids, at least twice a week. Not fried catfish and coconut shrimp, but grilled or baked fish such as cod, flounder, tilapia, shellfish and salmon (if it’s not too strong for your family’s tastes). Present unfamiliar foods in a familiar way to improve kids’ reception. Shield’s kids, for instance, love fish tacos.
Buy frozen, partly for affordability, but also because so-called “fresh” fish in Chicago often has been frozen previously and rethawed. “So you don’t want to take it home and refreeze it. Ask the fishmonger, “Was this frozen?”
—Take advantage of easy reference guides. If you eat fast food, look at the nutrition boards in the restaurant, or download a fast food app to find the healthiest options, Shield said. (Fast Food Calorie Counter, available on both iTunes and Google Play for 99 cents, is a popular one.)