With school back in season, mothers and fathers around the country are packing lunch boxes and wondering what to give their children for after-school snacks.
These days, both parents and children are more conscious of what they eat and what constitutes good nutrition, but with families constantly on the go, it is often difficult to eat well.
I asked Dr. Benjamin Caballero of the Johns Hopkins Center for Human Nutrition for some simple tips on getting the proper nutrients into children of all ages.
Q: What should parents look for and avoid in after-school snacks?
A: Parents should try to steer their children toward healthy but tasty snack foods -- and such foods do exist. First, try to avoid foods with sugar such as cookies and cakes. They are high in saturated fats, especially the ones with cream fillings. Also, try to stay away from junk foods that have lots of salt.
Instead, parents should look for snacks and lunch-box foods that are made with vegetable oil or sweets that are made with corn syrup rather than refined sugar. Pick out french fries that are unsalted or offer your children banana chips, plain popcorn or whole-grain-based snacks. Of course, there is always fruit or fruit and yogurt, which will give your child both vitamins and calcium.
Q: What about fast-food restaurants?
A: Even fast-food restaurants these days try to offer healthy selections on their menus. You can get salads just about anywhere and many fast-food outlets now have chicken without the skin rather than breaded and deep-fat fried.
On salads, try to use olive oil and vinegar rather than a creamy dressing. Keep the children away from milk shakes and encourage them to get a fruit drink even if it is based on only 10 percent to 15 percent fruit. At least then they avoid the sugar and the caffeine in many sodas.
Q: Should I worry about what my children's exact nutritional needs are?
A: There are classic studies showing that healthy children are able to regulate their food intake very well, as long as they are offered healthy foods.
If children are offered sugar candies and ice cream, they will not reject them and ask for grapes or raisins.
Since school-age children can eat pretty much the same foods as adults, family preferences and parental examples are important. Basically, if parents make sure their children get the foods we so often see in the food pyramid (bread, cereal, rice, pasta, fruits and vegetables, dairy and meat products), they will be eating well and getting the proper nutrition.
Q: Sould I worry if my child wants to eat the same thing every day?
A: Not really, unless it is a phase that extends for a really long period of time. Certainly one or two weeks of the same menu will not hurt a child.
Variety, however, is the key to a balanced and healthy diet. Having the same diet all the time may lead to nutrient deficiencies -- since no one or two foods can give a person everything he or she needs.
Q: Is there a psychological component to eating well?
A: Most definitely. First, peer pressure and fads become increasingly important as children approach adolescence. At some point, it is counterproductive to argue with a child or young adult about what to eat or how much.
If you have set a good example and given them the basis of good nutritional habits, chances are good that these habits will win out in the long run and your child will eat well and be healthy.
There is also some circumstantial evidence that not only what you eat but also how you eat is important to your health. Discourage your child from eating while doing something else (watching TV, walking the dog, riding a bike), and be an example yourself by not eating or drinking while you drive. Have at least one meal a day in a relaxed and formal way -- at the table.
Dr. Genevieve Matanoski is a physician and epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health. She is a founding director of the school's Institute for Women's Health Research and Policy.