It wasn’t long after Cindy Michelotti’s son started eating solids that she realized she had to lead by example. "We eat everything we expect him to eat," says Michelotti of Oak Park, parent of a 2-year-old. "By about a year old, if he had a bowl of cereal and I had a different kind, he would look over and want mine."
Michelotti has cut certain things, such as Frosted Flakes, out of her diet and added others, such as broccoli. And she has tackled one of the biggest pitfalls for many parents—eating healthy while on the go—by keeping plasticware, napkins and hand wipes in her car so they can get a healthier snack from a grocery store rather than a fast food restaurant.
With all the nutrition information available these days, most parents know the basics of good eating habits at home, but our best efforts can falter when we hit the road.
Derailing good intentions
With convenience foods, we usually know we are trading healthy ingredients for, well, convenience. We can see it on the label. With restaurant food, however, whether it is a drive-up window or a sit-down family meal, we don’t necessarily know what we are getting.
Children today are getting about a third of their total calorie intake from away-from-home foods, according to a 2003 report from the Center for Science in the Public Interest called "Pestering Parents: How Food Companies Market Obesity to Children."
In trying to set healthy habits for our children, we compete with billions of advertising dollars aimed at just the opposite. A banana is just as convenient to grab on the way out the door as a bag of gummies, but no one has jazzed up the fruit with colorful packaging or pushed it with eye-popping ads.
Frankly, ads appeal to parents too. We want to have it our way and to come for the food and stay for the pie. And we want to see those little faces light up as we turn toward the drive-up window. But who suffers? Our children.
Only 2 percent of children eat a healthy diet consistent with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s food guide pyramid, according to the center’s report. In the past 20 years, the rate of obesity has doubled in children and tripled in adolescents. One-quarter of children ages 5 to 10 have high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol or other early warning signs for heart disease.
Type 2 or "adult onset" diabetes is increasingly diagnosed in children and adolescents. In addition, many studies have shown a link between diet and behavioral and learning problems.
Stop any parent of young children on the street, peer into his or her bag and you are likely to find juice boxes, fish crackers, granola bars or gummies.
What is wrong with these typical to-go snacks? They include too much sugar and simple carbohydrates and too little protein, fruits and vegetables, says Bonnie Minsky, a certified nutrition specialist and dietitian based in Northbrook and author of Our Children’s Health: America’s Kids in Nutritional Crisis and What We Can Do to Help.
Since away-from-home foods comprise such a large percentage of children’s daily calories, they’re a good place to start making changes
Meeting nutritional needs
Snack time should be used to help meet nutritional needs, not simply to fill empty tummies. Very few children get the recommended minimum five servings of fruits and vegetables per day. Minsky challenges her six grandchildren to see who can include the most colors in their five-a-day servings of fruits and vegetables.
"Every fruit and vegetable has different nutrients," Minsky says. "Kids like the competition. You can make it fun."
Beyond the produce deficit, children are consuming too many carbohydrate calories at the expense of protein. Children get about 80 percent of their calories from carbohydrates, when they should get only 50 percent carbohydrate calories and 30 percent protein, Minsky says.
Proteins burn more slowly, providing energy for about four or five hours, while carbohydrate energy, from crackers or granola bars for example, may be used up in less than an hour, Minsky says.
The least desirable form of carbohydrate is refined sugar, a major source of calories in juice drinks, soda and processed foods. Sugar goes by many names on labels, including high fructose corn syrup, dextrose and sucrose. In addition to contributing to obesity and dental problems, excess sugar suppresses the immune system, Minsky says.
The American Association of Pediatrics says fruit juice and fruit drinks can contribute to energy imbalance, diarrhea, malnutrition and dental problems in young children and obesity in older children. The association recommends a limit of 6 ounces per day for children under 6, 12 ounces for children over 7.
And don’t opt for diet drinks in the hope of making a healthier choice. While sugar possesses clear health risks, sugar substitutes can be downright dangerous. The Center for Science in the Public Interest advises people to avoid aspartame and saccharin due to potential cancer risks and lists food dyes and preservatives deemed unsafe.
So how do parents get away from the standard to-go snack repertoire? Minsky recommends starting with filtered water to drink, then offering bananas, apples, grapes, raisins or dried fruit (without added sugar or sulfites). Pre-cut carrots and celery sticks or cherry tomatoes are other easy, to-go foods.
Then add the all-important protein; convenient sources include mozzarella sticks or other unprocessed cheese slices (take a freezer pack if necessary), nuts and seeds, and turkey or beef jerky (without the cancer-causing nitrates or nitrites). Cashew butter, almond butter or sunflower seed butter can be spread on crackers or used as a dip for carrot or celery sticks.
A whole-grain, low-sugar, fortified cereal, such as Cheerios, is another good snack idea, according to Minsky, because it delivers vitamins and minerals children often lack.
Change may be difficult for kids who are used to packaged foods, but Michelotti believes the choices she makes are setting important patterns for her children. "The foods you eat as a kid become your comfort foods in life," she says.
Ann Grecek, a mother of two in Orland Park, agrees. "My mom was a freak about healthy eating. At the time I kind of resented it, but it really helped me develop an understanding and a taste for healthier foods," she says. "We know if you feed kids junky food, that’s what they are looking for."
A family history of diabetes helped motivate Romeoville mom Maria Cook-Brown to completely revamp her family’s diet while she was pregnant with her third child. That meant she had the challenge of changing her older kids’ eating habits when they were about 5 and 10 years old.
She faced some resistance at first, she says. "My kids know when I’m serious, and they know what they can get away with. I don’t kid with school and I don’t kid with their eating."
Restaurant risks revealed
Transforming your snack habits may seem manageable compared with finding a healthy restaurant meal for kids.
From fast food joints to upscale establishments, kids’ menus are pretty consistent: chicken fingers, french fries, soda and ice cream. It adds up to too much sugar and carbohydrates, and too little protein, fruits and vegetables.
Restaurant meals present other dangers: too many calories, trans fat and additives such as MSG.
In restaurants, carbohydrates usually come by the basketful in the form of chips, bread or huge mounds of french fries. Children often fill up on the carbohydrates before the protein and vegetables arrive.
"I tell my grandchildren to eat the growing food first," says Minsky.
Avoiding trans fat
Restaurant food also frequently contains trans fat. Until the 1990s, trans fat was thought to be as safe as other monounsaturated fat, such as olive oil. In 2002, the National Academies’ Institute of Medicine declared that the only safe amount of trans fat in a person’s diet is none.
Since federal law began requiring processed food manufacturers to list trans fats on their nutrition labels, companies have quickly removed the additive from products such as crackers, cakes and cookies. Not so with restaurants, where it can be found in anything fried or breaded. McDonald’s recently revealed that a large order of french fries contains eight grams of trans fat.
"Trans fat clogs the arteries, leads to heart disease and weight gain. There is even a cancer connection. It’s really poison," Minsky says. "Parents should aim for zero trans fat. You will help your children and self dramatically with that step alone."
Another hidden danger in restaurant food is monosodium glutamate, or MSG, Minsky says. "Fast food is laden with it."
MSG is known to cause headaches and gastrointestinal problems and to block the body’s ability to use vitamin B6 and magnesium. "A lot of little children have headaches and don’t even realize it," Minsky says. "They either can’t express it or are so used to it, they don’t know they have headaches. It can affect their learning and behavior."
High calorie counts
Aside from the nutritional dangers, there is the sheer number of calories in restaurant food. Children eat almost twice as many calories when they eat at a restaurant, compared to home, the CSPI report says. The recommended daily calories for a child under 3 is about 1,000; children between ages 4 and 13 need 1,200 to 1,800 calories per day; children 14 and older should get 1,800 to 2,200.
A McDonald’s Happy Meal of a cheeseburger, small fries and low-fat chocolate milk delivers 670 calories—about half the recommended daily calorie intake for most children. Many of Subway’s 6-inch sandwiches contain more than 400 calories. Add a Subway cookie at more than 200 calories each, a drink and chips, and the total meal will soar beyond 1,000 calories.
However daunting, it is possible to eat out healthfully. Start by limiting the bread and chips—excessive calories and carbohydrates—before the more nutritious food arrives, and avoid french fries altogether, Minsky suggests.
"Kids won’t eat two fries and put them aside. They’ll eat them until they’re gone," says Michelle Dybal, an Oak Park mother of two. She usually asks for fruit or vegetables instead of fries. "Most places are pretty good about substituting," she says. In Mexican restaurants, she usually asks for a plate of sliced tomatoes.
A baked potato is a good alternative to fries. "Even mashed potatoes will be loaded with unwanted ingredients," Minsky says. Rather than ordering from the kids’ menu, let kids split a healthier adult meal or share with their parents. Choose grilled meat that is not slathered in sauce. If children want pasta, make sure it includes some grilled meat as well, Minsky recommends.
The best way to make changes is as a family. The reward is better health for everyone and, possibly, better-behaved kids.
"I can tell that my kids are more settled and feel more at ease when they are eating healthier food," says Dybal. "They like what we eat. It’s not like they complain about it; it’s just what we do."
Parents trying to trade gummies for whole fruit may face opposition from the kids. One strategy is to use these opportunities to talk about nutrition. "We talk regularly about what is in food, food groups and reading labels," says Christine Dalton, Oak Park mom of three. "I’ve found that my 5-year-old absorbs all this and repeats back what we talk about on a regular basis, so I know it’s sinking in."
Here’s how to explain the major food concepts:
Calories are a measurement of energy, or fuel. If we take in more fuel than we use, our body stores the extra fuel as fat.
Carbohydrates are fuel for our bodies in the form of fruits, vegetables and grains.
Proteins supply fuel and building materials for our bodies. Meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy products are high in protein.
Fats are a form of fuel that contain about twice as much energy (per gram) as carbohydrates and proteins. If you frequently eat foods high in fats you can get more fuel than you need. Also, certain kinds of fats are not healthy because they can slowly clog up blood vessels over time.
Vitamins and minerals are found within foods and are needed for our bodies to do their work. For example, vitamin A is found in carrots and is needed for eyesight. Our bodies can store some vitamins and minerals for later use, but some, like vitamin C, must be eaten every day.
Tracy Binius is a freelance writer in Oak Park.