Sneak This, Swap That: 9 Healthier Kid Foods
By Jennifer Gruenemay, Special to Lifescript
Mac ‘n’ cheese, hot dogs and French fries can be healthy with a few clever tweaks. Learn how to turn your kid’s favorite junk foods into nutritious meals. Plus, find out the top 8 supermarket snacks to avoid…
What would childhood be without grilled cheese, pizza and brightly-colored fast food wrappers?
One in which kids aren’t tipping the scales: 12.5 million U.S. children are obese, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That’s a shocking statistic no good parent can ignore.
What’s the first step to fighting childhood obesity? Teaching good eating at home. But here’s a fact you might not know: Nutrition guidelines apply to kids of all ages.
Parenting experts and pediatricians agree: After age one, kids should eat the same healthy foods as grown-ups – fruits and vegetables (puréed, of course), whole grains, lean proteins (meat, eggs and legumes) and low-fat dairy products.
So why is it so hard to get your kids to eat healthy?
In a word, marketing. Grocers deliberately place those shiny, colorful, cartoon-emblazoned packages at your eye-level.
They know that children want what they see – and can be very persistent. It’s often easier for parents to give in than deal with public temper tantrums.
It’s also easier – but not smarter – to let marketers tell you what your kids should be eating.
There’s a mindset “that babies eat commercial, jarred baby food, toddlers eat bland, simple foods and preschoolers eat Goldfish crackers for a snack and French fries for lunch,” says Nancy Tringali Piho, author of My Two-Year-Old Eats Octopus: Raising Children Who Love to Eat Everything (Bull Publishing).
Kids are also naturally picky, making it a headache to get them to eat veggies. Tringali Piho’s advice? “Serve a wide variety of foods and stay positive.”
But serving healthy foods kids will eat doesn’t mean you have to ditch foods they love.
“Most kid-favorite comfort foods can easily be adapted to a healthier version,” says Christina Schmidt, M.S., a certified nutrition educator, author of The Toddler Bistro and The Baby Bistro (both Bull Publishing).
The secret is starting with high-quality, naturally nutritious ingredients. Here’s how to sneak good foods into your child’s favorite snacks and drinks:
Mac ‘n’ cheese
A one-cup serving has 380 calories, 14.3 grams fat (4 grams saturated) and a whopping 749 milligrams of sodium.
Sneaky swap: Use healthier out-of-the-box brands like Annie’s Macaroni & Cheese, which has 280 calories, 4 grams fat (2 grams saturated) and 430 milligrams sodium. It’s made with natural ingredients and organic wheat pasta.
Even better, dress it up. Swap in whole-grain pasta and throw a few veggies into the sauce, Schmidt says.
Use veggies that blend in, such as shredded steamed carrots and diced cauliflower. If your kid won’t freak out at the sight of green, add nutrient-rich steamed broccoli, spinach, kale or peas.
“Bologna, bacon, hot dogs and sausages are high in sodium, carcinogenic nitrates and saturated fat,” Schmidt says.
But “you don’t have to outlaw stuff,” according to Chef Ann Cooper, author of Lunch Lessons: Changing the Way We Feed Our Children (Collins Living). “Just serve something with real ingredients,” like an all-beef, natural hot dog that doesn’t have nitrites or nitrates.
Sneaky swap: Shelton’s Organic Prairie, Lightlife, Applewood Farms, Healthy Choice and Diestel Turkey.
Compare a single, bunless Oscar Meyer wiener, with 147 calories and 13.6 grams of fat (5.6 grams saturated), to Organic Prairie uncured chicken dog, which has 70 calories and 4.5 grams fat (1 gram saturated) and no nitrates or nitrites.
Serve it on a whole-wheat bun with a side of veggie sticks and lunch is done.
One grilled cheese can easily weigh in at 500+ calories, with more than half of those from fat. So how can you lighten its dietary load?
Sneaky swap: “Use naturally low-fat, low-sodium cheeses such as mozzarella,” Schmidt says.
Grill it up panini-style with mozzarella, fresh tomato and basil and a drizzle of olive oil. It’ll be the newest household hit.
Peanut Butter & Jelly
One Panera kid’s PB&J has more than 400 calories, 17 grams of fat and 22 grams of sugar.
Sneaky swap: Use whole-grain bread, no-sugar-added jam and all-natural peanut or almond butter. Throw in sliced bananas for extra potassium and vitamin B6, then watch your kids gobble it up.
The original chicken McNugget contains 38 ingredients ranging from tertiary butylhydroquinone (TBHQ), dimethylpolysiloxene and other tongue twisters to partially hydrogenated corn oil (aka trans fat).
If a food doesn’t sound real, chances are it isn’t. Serve real chicken instead.
Sneaky swap: At the drive-thru, order chicken strips. Yeah, they’re breaded, fried and high in calories and preservatives, but chicken is still the main ingredient.
“Fried foods add unnecessary saturated fat and salt to kids’ diets,” Schmidt says.
But you don’t have to give up the potato.
Sneaky swap: Baked sweet potato fries. They’re higher in vitamins A, B complex and C, and potassium – and a snap to make.
“Slice sweet potatoes into sticks, toss in a little olive oil and roast on a baking sheet at 400°’F for 5-10 minutes on each side.”
No time? For a quick, store-bought alternative, buy frozen baking fries. “Alexia Organic makes a delicious potato or sweet potato fry for baking,” Schmidt says.
Just not with pepperoni or sausage. One slice of Pizza Hut’s Pepperoni Lover’s pizza has 330 calories, 18 grams of fat (7 grams saturated) and 800 milligrams sodium.
Sneaky swap: Ditch the takeout. Let kids make pizza from scratch, Schmidt says.
Frozen whole-wheat dough, low-sodium sauce and mozzarella provide a good base for piling on thin-sliced peppers, carrots, broccoli, zucchini, artichoke hearts and more. The possibilities are endless.
The problem? Even 100% fruit juices are not as filling as the actual fruit, says William H. Dietz, M.D., director of the Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity at the CDC.
“If you serve the juice equivalent of a piece of fruit, the brain doesn’t do a good job of registering these calories,” he says. That’s because an orange has bulk and is more filling.
Still, juice doesn’t have to be off limits, especially in warm weather where drinking plenty of liquids is important. But serve no more than 4 ounces a day for children under 6; 8 if they’re older, Schmidt says.
Also, give them 100% juices and dilute them with one-third to one-half water.
And break out of the clear-fruit juice box every now and then.
Sneaky swap: “Apple and white grape juices are relatively low in nutrients and high in sugar compared to other juice varieties,” Schmidt says.
A good alternative is V8 V-Fusions, a fruit-vegetable blend that offers natural fruit sweetness with veggies “a lifesaver if your kid refuses to touch the real stuff,” Schmidt says.
But “they shouldn’t be a long-term substitute. Juice – even fresh-squeezed – is a concentrated source of sugar,” she says.
Trouble is, sodas offer no nutritional benefit.
“They displace healthier beverages, such as milk and water, which lowers calcium intake and increases risk for obesity,” Schmidt says.
They’re also bursting with high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and chemical additives. This manufactured sweetener, often made from genetically-modified corn, has been linked to insulin resistance, a risk factor for type 2 diabetes.
Plus two recent studies by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy found that many manufactured food products containing HFCS are tainted with mercury. With all the information we do – and don’t yet – know about HFCS, it’s smart to monitor your kids’ soda intake.
And diet sodas are no better. Still, don’t toss all fizzy drinks.
Sneaky swap: Sparkling mineral water has the same fun bubbles without all the chemicals, sugars and additives. Mix in a splash of your kid’s favorite 100% juice, says Schmidt, and serve it with a kooky straw.
8 Foods Kids Just Shouldn’t Eat
Don’t make a big deal about bad foods. “It will just increase your kids’ interest and demand for them,” Schmidt says
Instead, allow them in moderation and keep junk food – including the following 8 items – out of your home:
1. 10% juice drinks. Ask yourself: If it’s only 10% juice, what’s in the other 90%? Besides water, it’s just sugar… and probably in the form of high-fructose corn syrup.
2. Red Bull, Gatorade and other energy or sports drinks. Gatorade has its place in this world – for athletes exercising longer than 90 minutes, not a thirsty tot who needs water.
3. Sugary breakfast cereals. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. No matter how you look at it, a bowl of brightly colored sugar chunks isn’t a meal of champions.
4. Fruit snacks. These are as “healthy” as 10% juice, which means not at all. Check the ingredients list. You’ll find chemicals, preservatives and high-fructose corn syrup wrapped in shiny packaging. Crave fruit flavor? Try the real thing.
5. Chips. High-salt, high-fat chips made all our experts’ lists of worst offenders. Any food that leaves behind greasy and orange-stained fingertips can’t be good for you.
6. Twinkies. The fluffy stuff in the middle is a prescription for health disaster – vegetable shortening, butter, sugar and lots of preservatives.
7. Doughnuts. White flour mixed with fat, fried in fat and rolled in sugar. Yummy, but not a recipe for longevity.
8. Candy. Ouch, sometimes the truth hurts. Candy has no nutritional benefit. Even chocolate has no excuse: The caffeine and fat in kid-preferred milk chocolate overshadow any calcium benefits. But you can’t outlaw candy, so reserve it for a special treat.
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