Sometimes parents are doing a better job than they think they are.
When we sent out our most recent call for guinea pigs for our monthly Make Over My Meal series, we got this e-mail from Bill Bennett and his wife, Monica:
"We have sons 12 and 14 who are year-round swimmers. They practice eight times a week, sometimes very early in the morning. We are concerned that we are not doing the right thing with cereal, or English muffins, etc. But it is a very difficult meal to schedule / coordinate and prepare."
I called to get more details.
Both Oliver, the 14-year-old, and his brother, Alex, swam for the Loyola Blakefield Middle School team this year; Oliver moves to the high school team next year. They both swim year-round for Loyola Blakefield Aquatics, a club team.
Breakfast before practice on a school day is at 5:30 a.m. On a typical Saturday, before an 8 a.m. practice, the boys eat at 7:15 a.m., but if there's a meet, they have breakfast an hour earlier.
Needless to say, the boys are sleeping until the last possible moment, and they aren't particularly hungry when they first get up. The catch-22 is that they need fuel to perform well. Oliver, who is 5 feet 10 inches tall and weighs 130 pounds, will burn up to 600 calories swimming laps for an hour. Alex, at 5 feet 3 inches and 90 pounds, will be expending less energy, but he still needs a carbohydrate-rich breakfast.
Alex's first meal of the day is normally a toasted cinnamon-raisin English muffin with butter and a glass of Instant Breakfast. Oliver typically eats a bowl of Frosted Flakes and drinks orange juice. When Robin Spence, a registered dietitian at Union Memorial Hospital, and I arrived at the Bennetts' home in Roland Park, we found a box of Frosted Flakes roughly the size of a refrigerator. Spence didn't bat an eye.
"What's interesting," she had said earlier, "is that this [breakfast] may very well be the right thing, but the confusion about nutrition and carbohydrates in general makes the parents feel they are wrong."
In other words, carbs, which have gotten a bad reputation lately, are just the thing if you're a still-growing student athlete and you have to eat just before you exercise vigorously.
In the Bennetts' case, the makeover would be more about tweaking than wholesale substituting, keeping the meal high in easily burned carbohydrates but working in more fiber and whole grains. There was also a noticeable absence of fruit in the mix, which Spence wanted to address.
"Our biggest weakness is that we don't eat enough fruit," Monica Bennett said. The boys don't mind fruit. They just don't think of, say, putting a banana or strawberries on their cereal when they're making their breakfasts at the crack of dawn.
I brought a selection of alternatives with us to the house. Trader Joe's has a line of whole-grain cereals that are inexpensive and appealing. I picked out Vanilla Shredded Mini Wheats and TJ's Honey Crunch n' Oats as a step in the right direction. I included a box of Nature's Path Heritage Flakes, but I didn't have much hope for it -- as Spence says, in this business you learn the art of compromise.
For those mornings when there wasn't even time for a bowl of cereal, I threw in a box of Peanut Butter Coated Granola Bars and a bag of Go Raw Trek Mix (nuts and raisins). Whole Foods has similar products, and regular supermarkets are starting to bring down the price on their health-food brands as well.
At Giant, I bought a package of store-brand multi-grain English muffins and a variety pack of Quaker Oats instant oatmeal.
"Obviously, you want to go with unprocessed, simple food as much as possible, but convenience is an issue," said Spence.
The dietitian suggested Alex try the multi-grain muffins and substitute jelly for the butter he was putting on the cinnamon-raisin English muffins. "In general, sugar is frowned upon for good reason," Spence said. "It's empty calories. But in this case, it's the fastest way to add carbohydrates without bulk. Don't be afraid of sugar in the presence of a well-rounded diet."
It turned out there was a secondary complication to our makeover. Oliver has to watch his cholesterol, a hereditary condition from his mother's family. He's supposed to limit foods containing cholesterol, like eggs, and those high in saturated fat, like hamburgers and fries -- not an easy thing for a teenage boy to do. He has 1-percent milk on his cereal to cut saturated fat, even though he could use the calories in whole milk.
Most people know the intestinal benefits of eating fiber, found in whole grains, fruit and vegetables. But eating an oat cereal like Cheerios or oatmeal, Spence told Oliver, would provide him with soluble fiber, which helps lower LDL (bad) cholesterol by pulling it out of your system. (Other sources are barley, apples, pears, carrots, dried beans and nuts.)
Particularly because they are serious athletes, Spence told the Bennett boys, it's time to switch from "puppy food to adult food."
"If you grow up having a taste for fiber, it will make your life easier," she said.
What Spence also wanted to focus on was what the boys ate after their practice to replace the glycogen, or stored carbohydrate, they had used up.
"Post-exercise replenishment is hugely important within a two-hour window," she said, "both carbohydrates and protein."
Twice a week Oliver has a post-practice breakfast in the school cafeteria, typically a sausage, egg and cheese biscuit, two pieces of French toast and Gatorade. (So much for his low-cholesterol and limited-saturated-fat diet.)
His mother looked surprised when she heard this. "You have eggs?" she asked.
Eggs twice a week are OK, Spence said. She was more worried about the sausage and biscuits. "You don't want to develop a relationship with those foods," she told him. "They're bad news." She recommended substituting ham for the sausage and an English muffin for the biscuit.
A few days later, I got in touch with the boys to see what they thought of our substitutions.
"I really like the Shredded Wheat and the Honey Crunch and Oats," Alex e-mailed me. "I do not like the oatmeal very much. The muffins are OK, but I have been eating the cereal every day."
"I really like the oatmeal and have been eating it for breakfast and for a snack," his older brother wrote. "Sometimes I add apples or bananas. I also like the trail mix. The Shredded Wheat and Honey Crunch and Oats are pretty good too. I am getting rid of the Frosted Flakes.
"Thanks for helping us. Maybe in the fall you can fix our lunch!"
ROBIN SAYS ... Robin Spence, a dietitian at Union Memorial Hospital, helped make over breakfast for the Bennetts.
GET YOUR VITAMIN D
If you drink orange juice fortified with calcium, make sure it also contains vitamin D.
A FRUITY START
Include fresh fruit in your breakfast. It provides carbohydrate, vitamins and fiber. Use a multigrain English muffin and jelly instead of butter to get more carbohydrate.
Whole-grain cereals are a better choice for both nutrition and fiber. Oatmeal and oat cereals can help lower LDL (bad) cholesterol.
Milk is "a neat package" of protein, carbohydrate and fat. Switch from whole milk to 1 percent to lower the amount of saturated fat.
Starting today, read Elizabeth Large's new restaurant blog, Dining at Large, at baltimoresun.com / diningatlarge