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Parents Pay Attention When Food Policies Get Personal

Erin Mantz
June 2, 2017

How to make healthy food choices for your family.



Only twelve out of 3,000 kids' meal combos at 8 fast-food chains are healthy, according to recent research from Yale's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. As a mom, I'm not surprised. I've read studies regarding similar nutrition concerns before, and certainly knew I wasn't making perfect choices popping my kids into McDonalds for fries once a month. I didn't really think it mattered, though - until now. Yesterday, when routine blood tests at my five-year-old's annual pediatric exam revealed his cholesterol level is sky-high. 

I don't blame our family's favorite burger place, or the local donut shop. If anything, I probably blame myself, our family's history of high cholesterol, or my former nanny for caving in to French fries with my kids too often during the preschool years, but then I stop. I don't know if I can really blame any of those things either. 

More and more in recent years, parents and kids have had the power to make healthy choices at groceries, restaurants and homes - apples instead of fries; milk instead of soda, chicken sandwiches grilled instead of fried. But, sometimes, they simply don't. I will now. Food policies, nutrition studies, stories about healthy eating and dietary recommendations now matter more to me, and I'm taking action, paying attention, and changing our family's eating habits. 

How can parents take better charge of their school age kids' eating habits before a personal crisis hits? Starting with the right kinds of snacks is a step in the right direction.

"On the Go" Options

The fact is, most families have hectic schedules and hold convenience high on their priority list. Weekday mornings are busy with getting ready to go to school/work and after-school time is usually spent rushing from one activity to the next. 

"Many families will admit that their busy lifestyles force them to often eat breakfast and dinner in the car and come from a fast-food drive-thru at least once a week," says Dr. Anjali Rao, MD, a pediatrician with Northwestern Memorial Physicians Group. "On-the-go" foods are often high in sugars, refined carbohydrates, and fats. While they may temporarily make you feel full and energized, that feeling is often short-lived, leaving you hungry and fatigued well before it is time for your next meal. This is particularly concerning for growing children, who get a carb rush but then crash before they have completed their after-school activities or homework."

Rao recommends on-the-go snacks that are high in protein, whole grain carbs, and fresh fruits/vegetables. Parents can educate their school-age children about label-reading and the food pyramid so they can make good food choices even when they are with their babysitter. Other ideas for on-the-go healthy snacks include: cheese sticks, sliced apples/pears, bananas, fresh berries, grapes, vegetable sticks with ranch dressing, sandwiches/wraps, skim milk, nuts, and low-fat low-sugar yogurt. 

"These choices are healthier, cheaper, and usually faster than a drive-thru!" Rao relays. For those Saturdays running from activities to games, families can start a routine of packing a cooler filled with healthy foods so a fast-food run will not be needed. 

Shake it Up

Smoothies offer another solution, as they can be a snack that squeezes nutrition into kids' (and parents') diets, says Aviva Goldfarb, owner and CEO of The Six O'Clock Scramble, whose website, cookbooks, and online meal planning site make it easier for families to eat healthier. 

"Instead of pouring a glass of sugar-crammed soda or fruit juice, make smoothies with fruits like berries and bananas, yogurt or kefir  - even a teaspoon of orange flavored fish oil added in can ensure they get their Omega 3s," Goldfarb says. 

Shop Right

The crowds at Whole Foods Market may be on to something. Chef Chad Sarno, who leads Whole Foods Market's Health Starts Here team, recommends choosing healthier, nutrient-dense foods with high Aggregate Nutrient Density Index (ANDI) scores.  Shoppers can follow an ANDI scoring scale throughout the store to guide them on the vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and antioxidants per calorie in various foods. 

He also offers four tips that make it easier to choose right:

  • TIP #1:  Serve whole foods. Avoid artificial ingredients and processed foods with high fructose corn syrup and preservatives and opt for fresh, whole foods.
  • TIP #2:  Choose healthy fats like nuts and avocado. Avoid hydrogenated oils and fatty foods.
  • TIP #3:  Focus on plant-strong foods.  Think more veggies, fruits, grains, beans and legumes at every meal.
  • TIP #4:  Choose nutrient dense foods. Choose foods with higher Aggregate Nutritional Density Index (ANDI) scores since they have more micronutrients per calorie.

Making snacks at home?  Check out Chef Sarno's recipes for smart snacks such Black Bean Hummus and Lemon Treats.

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