Not every food that sounds healthy for a child is as good as it appears. By Carolyn Williams, M.Ed., R.D.
Yogurt, applesauce, whole grain cereal, fruit juice– these sound like staples of a healthy child’s diet, right? However, these wholesome sounding foods may really be full of fat, sugar, sodium, and unnecessary additives or have little nutritional value at all. Read on to learn how to decipher food labels and make healthier choices for your kids.
This classic kid food is perfect for lunchboxes and last minute meals, but the traditional version on white bread leaves much to be desired nutritionally. Commercial peanut butters are full of artery-clogging hydrogenated oils and added sugars. And spreading on grape jelly adds an extra helping of simple sugars. It’s easy to make your sandwich a nutritional winner, though, by using whole grain bread, natural peanut butter, and an all-fruit spread. The complex carbs and fiber in the bread combined with the protein and good fats in natural peanut butter deliver a filling and balanced meal.
There’s nothing good or bad with baked chips and pretzels – and that’s exactly the problem. Though these baked snacks are much lower in fat than traditional chips and puffs, they really offer very little nutrient-wise. Pack more nutrients into your child’s snack or sandwich accompaniment by offering whole wheat pita chips or baked veggie chips, both of which are higher in fiber, B vitamins and some minerals. Another fiber-rich option snack option is popcorn, which most people don’t realize is actually a whole grain.
Everyone knows kids need milk for good bone health, but did you know that kids don’t need the extra fat that’s in whole milk? In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics now recommends that children over the age of two years drink low-fat (1%) milk. Toddlers need the extra fat in whole milk from 12 months to two years for development; but, after that, the additional fat isn’t necessary and can add extra calories to kids’ diets. If your child is hooked on whole milk, then transition him slowly to the low-fat option by mixing whole or 2% milk with 1% or skim. And, don’t worry about missing out on any calcium and Vitamin D. All milks have the same vitamin and mineral content, regardless of the fat content.
What could be more wholesome than applesauce, right? Think again. Most applesauce today is sweetened with added sugars and may even be tinted with artificial colorings. While there are nutritious ones out there, you have to know what to shop for. Look for the words “natural” or “unsweetened” on the label, which usually means the applesauce has no added sugars, just fruit. Double check the ingredient list to make sure apples and water are the primary ingredients. Organic varieties of unsweetened applesauce, which are made from apples grown on pesticide- and chemical-free farms, are available at some stores.
Packaged lunches offer all types of deli meat, cheese and cracker combinations. Some varieties even have a drink and dessert included. Kids like having the option to build their own lunches; parents like the simplicity these lunches provide on busy mornings. However, these packaged meals are full of processed food items usually high in fat and sodium. We suggest making your own lunch combinations. Pack whole grain crackers or mini pitas with lean, low-sodium turkey or ham and cheese cubes. Round off the meal with a fruit and vegetable serving such as sweet cherry tomatoes, baby carrots or grapes. To save time in the morning, pre-portion items into individual containers the night before or when you get home from the grocery.
Granola sounds really healthy, so a granola bar seems like a great snack to fuel kids on the go. But read the packages of some granola bars, and you’ll see chocolate chips, swirls of peanut butter, and caramel drizzles. The reality is that many granola bars today more closely resemble candy bars than health food. Most bars are loaded with added sugars, contain hydrogenated oils, and have very little whole grains, protein, or fiber in them. Instead of granola bars, try letting your child create his own trail mix with dried fruit, high-fiber whole grain cereal, and a sprinkling of nuts and dark chocolate bits. Here’s a tasty combination full of antioxidants and good fats to get you started: dried cranberries, whole wheat cereal squares, low fat granola cereal, almonds, and dark chocolate chunks.
It’s hard to find a cereal today that doesn’t have the words “whole grain” printed front and center in bright letters. But adding some whole grain flour to chocolate puffs and rainbow-colored loops doesn’t make the cereal a nutritional all-star. Many cereals actually only have a small amount of whole grains in them and still contain the same amount of added sugar that they’ve always had. So how do you decipher what’s really a nutritious breakfast choice? First, look at the ingredient list. You want whole grains like whole wheat flour, oats, rye, or barley to be among first few ingredients listed. Make sure that sweeteners like sugar, corn syrup, and honey are towards the end of the list. Next, look at the nutrition facts. Try to choose a cereal with less than 3 grams of fat and at least 3 grams of protein and fiber per serving.
Full of bone-building calcium, yogurt seems like a food for your child that you can’t go wrong with. And the truth is yogurt is a great source of nutrition – if you know what kind to look for. The healthiest options are low-fat or fat-free plain or Greek yogurt to which you can add your own fresh fruit and even a drizzle of honey. If your child prefers flavored yogurt, then look for one flavored with fruit and fruit juice. Make sure the yogurt label says “live and active cultures” to ensure that it is a good source of healthy, immune-boosting bacteria. Beware of the yogurts and yogurt drinks aimed at kids; these often have added sugars and artificial colorings and cost a lot more per ounce.
Yes, juice is a good source of vitamins and minerals, but the reality is that juice is too often a source of extra calories in a child’s diet. In fact, high intake of juice and juice drinks is thought to be one of the contributing factors to the obesity epidemic in kids. The American Academy of Pediatrics has put limits on the amount of juice that kids should have per day: just ½ to ¾ cup for those age 1 to 6 years and 1 to 1-½ cups for those age 7 to 18 years. Juice isn’t off the table; it should just be limited. It’s better for them to get their fruit servings from eating whole fruit, which provides more fiber, vitamins, and minerals, rather than from drinking it.