By Bev BennettPhoto: Frank Pinc
Tam Dillman convinced her husband, Matt Weller, to eat vegetables--not for the sake of his health, for his child's.
"I've talked to Matt about making a show of eating vegetables," says Dillman, a North Side mother and marketing consultant. "Matt does eat some of his vegetables just to set an example for our son Zach."
Like many parents, she and her husband are learning that when it comes to nutrition, "do as we say" is not enough. Mom and Dad have to be the food role models, cops and cheerleaders to assure their children will embrace healthful eating habits.
With statistics on childhood obesity reaching stunning proportions--about 15 percent of children and adolescents are now classified as overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention--adults are concerned about giving their children too many fatty foods or empty calories.
Solving the problem isn't easy. If you're like most parents, you find it challenging to consistently make nutritious meals, especially if you're rushing through dinner to other activities. And, let's face it, when your 4-year-old is whining for cookies, it's easier--and quieter--if you give in rather than making a pitch for carrot sticks.
However, you can make a difference. Make healthful foods, such as fruits, vegetables and whole-grain foods available. Offer opportunities for your child to try low-fat, nutritious products and present these foods as a pleasurable part of eating. That way your child is less likely to become overweight.
It's never too early to start, says Sheah Rarback, a registered dietician and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.
"The first thing parents should think about when their child is born is that they're the role models. Develop the habits you want your child to have so he can model yours," says Rarback, who works with overweight children through the University of Miami's pediatrics department.
Take an inventory. See whether the foods you buy reflect what you want your child to eat, says Mary Suarez, an out-patient dietitian at Evanston Hospital.
"Don't talk about healthful food while you're stacking the cupboard with chips," she says.
You'd be a rare parent if you swept every empty-caloried food from your kitchen. But you can make subtle improvements. For example, switch to whole-grain from plain white bagels, select breakfast cereal with at least four to five grams of dietary fiber, buy low-fat cheese sticks and conveniently packaged fruits and vegetables for snacks.
"Start with familiar or favorite foods, such as chili. Substitute ground turkey for beef so it's leaner or add more beans than meat to the recipe. Use soft flour tortillas; the hard ones are fried," says Suarez.
Don't get so carried away you can't sustain the changes. If you're going to insist that no one can ever eat ice cream or that everyone has to drink fat-free milk, you're headed for failure.
Go easy with portions. Serve the amount of food appropriate to your child's height, weight and age. Children will eat more than they need when excess food is put on their plates, according to experiments done at Penn State University. The older the child, the more he responds to the stimulus of a full plate rather than his appetite.
"Put a scoop of food on your child's plate and don't offer more unless your child asks for it," Suarez says.
To introduce healthy, low-fat food choices, work with, not against, your child's food personality.
"I absolutely have to keep in mind what my kids [Jack, 9, and Grace, 6] like and what they might be willing to try," says Joan Holleran of Deerfield.
"I can introduce new foods if I literally do it one morsel at a time. For example, my son Jack, the tougher eater of the two, has gotten into different kinds of ravioli. By starting out with just a cheese ravioli, we've been able to add spinach, little bits of sauce and other flavorings, and we've grown to the point where Jack doesn't question every ingredient in the ravioli," says Holleran, editor of a food industry magazine.
Tips for trimming fat and calories ~ If your child loves carbonated beverages, use sodium-free club soda to dilute orange or apple juice.
~ Switch from jelly to fruit spread for PB&J. Your child will get the delicious taste of fruit, with substantially less sugar.
~ Make puddings and hot chocolate with fat-free milk. It has 90 calories, not 160 for whole milk, but all the protein and calcium of the full-fat version.
~ When making chewy cookies such as oatmeal, substitute mashed banana for a quarter of the fat. For example, if a recipe calls for 2 cups of butter, use 1½ cups of butter and ½ cup mashed banana. You'll save at least 1,000 calories and 100 grams of fat for the batch.
~ If your child likes creamy salad dressing or dip, use buttermilk, fat-free yogurt or reduced-fat mayonnaise as the base.
~ Make wholesome "crackers." Start with reduced-fat whole wheat tortillas and use a 2½-inch cookie cutter to cut four circles or crackers out of each tortilla. Place crackers on a cookie sheet. Spray with butter-flavored cooking spray. Season lightly with chili powder, cumin or the flavoring of your choice. Toast crackers in a preheated 350-degree oven seven to 10 minutes.
The Vegetable Battle Vegetables are still the family scourge, as they are in many households. Holleran takes the same bite-by-bite approach.
"My kids do pretty well with vegetables because we started out simply. We started with steamed broccoli and raw carrots. Jack still wants his vegetables in a separate dish, but if that's what it takes, I'll do it," says Holleran.
Suarez turns vegetable eating into a game. She and her granddaughter make broccoli trees together.
"Then I suggest we eat a little of the trees," Suarez says.
Dillman admits "it's an eternal struggle getting Zach to eat green vegetables." Peas had potential. "Zach likes, but doesn't love green peas," says Dillman. "I put the peas on the table first, add more salt--kids love salt--and add more butter than I'd eat and call Zach to the table first. He says he doesn't like peas, but five minutes later they're gone."
Switching to Healthier Snacks Your child probably eats one or two snacks a day. Use these opportunities to make the switch from sugary foods to fruits and vegetables. Also provide low-fat alternatives to the typical noshes.
"If chips are what your kids love, get baked corn chips or pretzels. Serve salsa instead of a high-fat dip," says Suarez. "Make a mix of dried fruit, nuts and seeds to nibble on. Serve frozen bananas on a stick. "
You can tell your child to eat fruits and vegetables, but if the produce isn't in sight and ready to eat, your efforts are wasted. You can't just have carrots or oranges available. You have to peel or pare them.
Experiment until you find the form of fruits and vegetables your child prefers. Perhaps your daughter doesn't like carrot sticks but loves carrot coins. Or maybe Granny Smith apples are too tart, but Braeburns are just right. It's worth the effort to find out, says Rarback.
A pleasurable adventure Grocery shopping with your children may be on your short list of experiences from hell, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't do it.
"Let your children go shopping with you so they have a choice in what they get to eat," says Keith Ayoob, assistant clinical professor of pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.
"Turn your children loose in the produce section. Tell them ‘this is your choice, you pick,' then respect their choices," says Ayoob, a spokesperson for the ADA.
Holleran was pleased when her daughter Grace discovered string cheese in a store. It was an easy and fun way for her daughter to get more calcium.
And if Grace turns meals upside down, that's OK with her mom.
"Yesterday Grace had soup for breakfast. She used a flat-bottom [Oriental] soup spoon to eat tomato bisque soup. Why not?
"My kids use chop sticks because they're ‘neat,' and they eat more stir-fry vegetables because of it," says Holleran.
Be Flexible One meal in a fast-food restaurant isn't going to doom your child to a life of obesity.
"You have to look at the total diet, not each mouthful," Rarback says.
Dillman agrees. "Our family occasionally does fast food. I don't want it to be forbidden food, but we only do it on an occasional basis," she says.
Holleran was surprised at how unappealing candy became when she offered more nutritious alternatives. "There's always some candy around the house. Jack recently brought some candy to the car and it's been sitting there for four days," she says. "I let my children know it's [empty-calorie foods] out there but I also let them know there are much better options," says Holleran.
The Best Beverage? If you were to imagine a drink guide pyramid--none exists yet--it would float on water. Although there's no set requirement for water, that should be the predominant beverage, say health experts. Your child's need will depend on her age, weight, height, activity level and time of year, but estimate at least four glasses a day for children over age 2.
Milk is next. Children age 2 to 6 should drink 2 servings of milk, or a recommended alternative such as cheese or yogurt. Children over age 6 can drink 3 glasses a day. After age 2, your child can and should drink low-fat or fat-free milk.
You'll want to limit your child's intake of fruit juice even though it's a rich source of vitamin C. Fruit juice is caloric, but doesn't have the important dietary fiber found in whole fruit. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that juice be half the fruit servings for a day. If your child has two servings of fruit, only one should be juice.
Put soft drinks on the top of the pyramid as an occasional beverage.
Bev Bennett is a food and nutrition writer living in Evanston. Her latest book "Cooking Out of the Box" was released by Prima Publishing in October.