Archive for the ‘ Snacking ’ Category

The Mediterranean Diet Bonus for Kids

Friday, July 18th, 2014

This is a guest post by Karen Cicero, Parents’ Contributing Food and Nutrition Editor.

Fish, whole grains, veggies—these probably aren’t your kids’ favorite foods (okay, they might not even like them at all), but it’s worth your time to work on it. Here’s why: A new study of 9,000 children ages 2 to 9 in eight European countries found that those who most closely follow a Mediterranean diet are 15 percent less likely to be overweight. I admit that it doesn’t sound like a huge deal, but considering nearly 1 in 5 American kids ages 6 to 11 is overweight, it makes a significant dent. Plus, since obesity rates increase as kids get older, it’s worth getting on the right track before the tween and teen years.

What’s so special about the Mediterranean approach? The researchers think that the high fiber content and healthy fats found in foods like nuts, avocados, olive oil, and produce may help prevent kids from overeating. “This is the first study I’ve seen that makes the connection between the Mediterranean and obesity in kids,” says Lauri Wright, R.D.N., a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and mom of three. “We already know that this type of eating plan is healthy in many other ways—like helping to prevent heart disease—so it’s wonderful that it may have extra benefits for children too.”

Of course, you’re not going to be able to switch your child’s eating habits overnight, but take these steps to make your family’s meals and snacks more Mediterranean:

* Do over dip. Swap the creamy salad dressings your kid drenches his baby carrots in for healthy hummus.

* Make pizza at home. Use thin whole-grain crust. Make it yourself (find a recipe here) or buy pick up a package of whole-wheat Naan bread (my daughter prefers it for her pizza!). Top it with whatever veggie your kid likes—even if it’s corn.

* Start working in more seafood. Let your child give it a try in a no-pressure situation, like when it’s on a buffet or when she’s having a bite of yours. When my daughter was a toddler, she used to swipe clams and mussels from my plate, at first mainly because she was intrigued by the shells. But then she began requesting a bowl of her own! Eventually, work your way up to homemade fish nuggets—Wright coats pieces of mild fish with applesauce and then rolls them in cornmeal before baking. When you’re ready to move onto grilled fish, top it with a salsa made from your child’s favorite fruits. That’s how I got my daughter to taste salmon and sea bass, which are now her faves.

* Build on veggie success. Chances are, your child likes a lot of different kinds of fruits and a few veggies. Combine a favorite with something that’s unfamiliar or not as well liked (such as corn with red onions or cucumbers with radishes or watermelon with baby spinach) to increase the chance that he’ll eat it. Salad can be a tough sell so start with mild butter lettuce and add a lot of fun familiar ingredients (like dried fruit, sunflower seeds, or orange wedges). Kids may also enjoy salads more if they’re chopped.  Even though it takes longer to prepare, you’ll have a happy, healthier eater as a reward.

Healthy Snacks: Why Kids Need to Snack
Healthy Snacks: Why Kids Need to Snack
Healthy Snacks: Why Kids Need to Snack

Image of Mediterranean food via Shutterstock.

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What is “Real Food?” Dietitians Weigh In

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2014

For the past few years, you’ve likely heard how vital it is to feed our children and ourselves more so-called “real food.” Adding to—if not starting—the conversation, popular food writer Michael Pollan weighs in on all things food in his bestselling book, Food Rules. In it, he defines “real food” as “plants, animals and fungi people have been eating for generations.” Pollan also refers to most new products offered in supermarkets each year as “edible food-like substances” and describes such foods as “highly processed concoctions designed by food scientists, consisting mostly of ingredients derived from corn and soy that no normal person keeps in the pantry, and that contain chemical additives with which the body has not been long acquainted.”

Although many parents and experts alike may agree with Pollan’s point of view, there’s no formal, universally accepted definition for “real food.” Even if there were, it’s likely parents who want to feed themselves and their growing children better would go about doing so in different ways. Still, I thought it would be fun to take to Facebook and Twitter and ask my registered dietitian colleagues what they think “real food” really is.

According to Marty Yadrick, “real food” is anything edible. Sheryl Lozicki thinks of “real food” as food that is minimally processed and nourishing. Alexandra Lautenschläger concurs, adding that “real foods” have few ingredients.

Janet Bond Brill, PhD thinks of “real food” as food that is eaten the way Mother Nature intended it to be eaten—for example, an apple rather than apple pie. And Maggie Green says, “If “real food” means it’s tangible, then all food is real. If “real food” means it’s not processed, that excludes foods like olive oil and butter.” According to Lauren Slayton, “For many parents, “real food” is food they serve their children—it doesn’t come from a package or from a factory.”

Regan Jones concedes that that term “real food” means different things to different people (something that came across loud and clear when I posted the question on Facebook and on twitter in the first place). According to Jones, “In it’s truest sense, “real food” represents foods that we recognize in their most basic, natural form—how they grew from the ground, what animal produced the milk, or even the tree on which the fruit grew. But busy, modern day lives mean we don’t/can’t eat at that most basic root level—so for my purposes, “real foods” are foods that have been processed in a way to allow for convenience (like peeling or grinding) and safety (like pasteurization).” The co-creator of, an image-based recipe discovery platform—and the only site of its kind moderated by registered dietitians and solely focused on healthy food blogs—Jones says, “While we (at don’t shun all advances by food manufacturers, we do like to focus on ingredients that are easy to recognize and understand.”

Supermarket dietitian Leah McGrath thinks terms like “real food,” “whole food” and “clean eating” are elitist and simply give certain foods and eaters undeserved status. To McGrath, “real food” is anything we can safely consume. Rebecca Scritchfield also takes issue with the term “real food.” In her opinion, it’s a term that’s full of judgment. That said, Scritchfield thinks of “real food” as food you can make in your kitchen, even if you don’t. “I can make homemade corn tortillas in my kitchen for fish tacos or migas, but I can also buy them. I can also make chocolate chip cookies with real butter and sugar and don’t need to use applesauce or other “replacements” to call it real. Like Scritchfield, Danielle Omar thinks of “real food” as food that she can make or grow myself. She says, “I can make yogurt, but I can’t make Cool Whip or Velveeta cheese.”

Roseanne Rust believes that trendy and simple terms like “real food” that get pitched to and by the media as sound bites never explain the whole picture. She’s also tired of simple “X is bad” statements and “Avoid X challenges.” According to Rust, “Food and eating is personal. “Real” is not what matters. What matters are healthy eating behaviors and patterns.”

However you define “real food,” the bottom line is clear—at least to me. Most of us don’t own and run a farm, or grow most (if any) of our own foods. If we can produce some of our own food via a garden, or rely on a local farmer’s market for fresh, locally grown produce, fantastic! But if that’s not possible—or we haven’t yet made time for it (guilty as charged), following a few simple rules can help us feed and nourish our families without making ourselves crazy.

Eating foods—mostly plants, as suggested by Michael Pollan and so many of us registered dietitians—and choosing mostly foods that are made with minimal amounts of solid fats and added sugars (SoFAs) that provide empty calories can certainly help. Eating a dietary pattern consistent with MyPlate and keeping portion sizes of foods that don’t neatly fit into any recognizable food group can also help. (For example, foods like low fat chocolate milk or Hershey Kisses can be included as part of kids’ daily SoFA calories if that’s how they’d like to spend those extra calories).

For other tips on how we can help our kids eat better, check out How to Help Kids Eat Less and Better and Tips From Experts to Feed Kids Better from The Scoop on Food.

Kids' Favorite Snacks
Kids' Favorite Snacks
Kids' Favorite Snacks

How do you define “real food?”

Image of healthy lifestyle concept via shutterstock.


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Should Soda Carry a Warning Label?

Saturday, May 31st, 2014

We all know that sugary soda offers empty calories and not much else to help children grow and develop optimally. Studies have linked soda intake with everything from poor diet quality to weight gain to an increased risk for obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Soda intake has also been associated with an increased risk of dental caries and kidney stones. A recent study published in the Journal of Pediatrics also found a link between soda intake and an increased risk of aggressive behavior in young children.

Because of the purported perils associated with soda consumption, some believe they should come with a warning label. Just this week, the California Senate approved a bill that would require a label on the front of all sealed sugar-sweetened nonalcoholic beverage containers that have 75 calories or more per 12 ounces. The label would read: “STATE OF CALIFORNIA SAFETY WARNING: Drinking beverages with added sugar(s) contributes to obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay.” Sodas that are dispensed or poured at the business premises where the beverages are purchased would be exempt from the labeling requirements.

According to the bill, referred to as SB-1000, in California alone, 19 percent of 2- to 5-year-olds, 32 percent of 6 to 11-year-olds, and 65 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds drink a sugar-sweetened beverage daily. The bill also notes there’s a major disparity between races and ethnicities. It says, “74 percent of African American adolescents drink at least one sugar-sweetened beverage each day, compared to 73 percent of Latinos, 63 percent of Asians, and 56 percent of whites.”

Although estimates vary, a recent study published in American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that, on average, Americans aged 2 and above derived 171 calories—8 percent of total calories—from sugar sweetened beverages (SSBs), the top source being soda. The study also showed that 12- to 19-year-old boys derived 12 percent of their total daily calorie intake—293 calories—from SSBs. Using national survey data of thousands of children and adults, a previous study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that while soda intake fell, intake of nontraditional SSBs rose. For example, although soda was the most heavily consumed SSB in all age groups except for children, adolescents’ intake of soda dropped while heavy intake of sports/energy drinks tripled.

No matter how you slice it (or pour it), we know we should all replace some or all of the sugary soda and other nutrient-poor SSBs in our diets with more healthful drinks like water. But would having a warning label on soda containers cause parents and children to drink less soda—and would that, in turn, reduce the risk of obesity and other diet-related diseases? That’s the million dollar question. Coupled with anti-soda public health campaigns, having a warning label on soda may encourage a parent or child to think twice before purchasing or drinking soda. But only time and studies would tell if the measure would prove to be effective in improving dietary intake, weight and health in the nation.

Although I agree we should all cut back on sugary soda intake, I’m not sure I agree that soda should carry a warning label. I truly believe that small portions of soda or other nutrient-poor treats like cookies, snack chips and candy can be included in an otherwise nutritious, balanced diet. Also, if we stick warning labels on soda, shouldn’t we do the same for candy and other treats? What about butter? Where do we draw the line?

According to David Katz, MD, co-author of Disease Proof, “I really don’t think it makes sense to put warning labels on food that is still sold as food. Once it warrants a warning label, it no longer qualifies as food.”  In a post for TIME Magazine, Katz argues, “Junk (like soda) should never have been a food group in the first place. So sure, let’s apply some objective method to determine what foods warrant a scarlet “J,” but then let’s eradicate them. It’s silly to have warning labels on food we keep selling.”

Whether or not warning labels on sodas and other SSBs becomes mandated in California or in other states across the country, parents can choose to skip the soda altogether and not drink it themselves or offer it to their children. Instead, they can provide their families with nutritious beverage options at home and encourage their selection at restaurants or when on-the-go.

If parents drink sugary soda themselves or allow their children to drink it, a good rule of thumb is to think of soda as a treat or dessert and to limit the frequency of consumption and to keep portion sizes small. It’s also important for those who drink soda, young or old, to have it instead of—not in addition to—candy, cookies, ice cream or other foods and beverages made with a lot of added sugar to ensure they stay within calorie needs and have enough room for nutrient-rich foods.

For more tips, check out Rethinking Kids’ Drinks: How to Foster Healthier Habits.

Do you think warning labels on soda are a good or bad idea?  

Nutrition Labels: 3 Things To Avoid
Nutrition Labels: 3 Things To Avoid
Nutrition Labels: 3 Things To Avoid

Image of yellow tin with a radioactive waste via shutterstock.

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Is There a Sweet Side to Sugar?

Monday, March 10th, 2014

If you’re a parent, you know that many kids—perhaps even your own—overdo their sugar intake. Whether they slurp on a sugary drink, nosh on candy at the movie theater, enjoy a slice of cake or a cupcake at a party or enjoy some cookies after school, many sugary foods and beverages are nutrient poor and contribute calories—and not much else.

Because OD’ing on sugar can reduce intake of more nutritious foods, contribute to excess calorie intake and unhealthy weight gain and increase the risk of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) like dental diseases (especially dental caries), the World Health Organization (WHO) recently drafted new revised guidelines for sugar intake.

Unlike current Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the American Heart Association recommendations to limit “added sugars”—sugars added to foods during processing or preparation and at the table—the proposed WHO guidelines recommend a cap for “free sugars”. These “free sugars” are sugars added by manufacturers, cooks or consumers such as glucose, fructose and sucrose (table sugar) as well as sugars that naturally occur in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit concentrates. Although the new proposed guidelines by the WHO include its previous recommendation of less than 10% of total calories from sugar daily, they also include a suggestion to reduce “free sugar” intake to below 5% of total energy intake daily for additional benefits.

For a child who consumes 1,200 to 1,600 calories daily, 10% of “free sugars” is the equivalent of 120 to 160 calories (or 30 to 40 grams); 5% of “free sugars” equals 60 to 80 calories (or 15 to 20 grams). To put this in context, one can coca-cola has about 39 grams of sugar and one package (1.69 ounce) M&M plain chocolate candies has about 31 grams of sugar. To find out how much total sugar and added sugar many products contain, respectively, you can check out the United States Department of Agriculture Nutrient Database and Food-A-Pedia.

As a registered dietitian nutritionist and mother of two, I applaud any effort parents make to help their kids reduce their intake of added sugars for the reasons cited above. Capping added sugar intake by keeping fewer sweet snacks and desserts in the home and encouraging smaller portions of sugary treats when eating and drinking on the run can allow more opportunities for kids to incorporate nutritious foods that help them develop and manage their weight as they grow.

Although achieving current recommendations for sugar intake (and current as well as proposed WHO recommendations) would require children to dramatically reduce their current sugar intake, doing simple things like replacing even a few sugary sodas with sparkling or plain water, having smaller portions of candy and baked goods and eating more naturally sweet foods like fresh fruits or even dried fruit (with no sugar added) can help.

But while I so support shrinking sugar intake, I also believe that sometimes sugar has a sweet side. Just like a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, sometimes, having a little sugar—white or brown sugar, honey, or even some maple or chocolate syrup or catsup—can help kids enjoy nutrient-rich foods like low fat or nonfat milk or yogurt, whole grain, high fiber cereals and fresh fruit. Dipping apple slices in some honey or chocolate sauce, sprinkling brown sugar or pouring some maple syrup on plain oatmeal, adding honey to plain yogurt or dipping grilled chicken slices in catsup can help kids enjoy the taste of the more nutritious foods and beverages. It’s all about context, and incorporating small amounts of sugar in otherwise nutritious meals that your kids eat is very different than allowing them to routinely drown in big boxes of candy or oversized cups of sugary sodas.

I also think there’s room in a child’s diet for small amounts of 100% fruit juice. Even though WHO considers fruit juice to be a source of “free sugars,” following American Academy of Pediatrics’ juice recommendations—up to 4 to 6 ounces daily for 1 to 6-year-olds and 8 to 12 ounces for 7 to 18-years-old—is prudent. Of course, fresh fruit is more fiber-rich and filling than juice, but many juices like orange, grape, apple and cranberry juice can deliver a good dose of key nutrients and other beneficial substances kids need.

Do you think there’s a sweet side to sugar?

Check out my previous Scoop on Food blog for tips to help kids satisfy a sweet tooth.

Image of strawberry on a spoon with sugar pouring over it via shutterstock.


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Helping Kids Eat Well When Others Feed Them

Monday, January 20th, 2014

It’s hard enough for parents to feed their children well and instill in them healthier eating habits both at home and when on the go. But while parents have plenty of control over the foods and beverages they bring into their homes to feed their families, it becomes more of a challenge to make sure children are fed well when they’re at daycare, at preschool, or with a nanny, a babysitter or even grandma.

Of course parents have to choose their battles when it comes to raising and feeding kids, especially as they get older and increasingly choose foods and portions on their own. But while kids are still young, it’s important for parents to help set the stage for healthier habits—not only because kids’ food preferences are still evolving, but because what and how much they eat impacts their growth, development and future health.

Because others may play a role in caring for—and feeding—children, it’s important that parents initiate a conversation so that everyone is on the same page to help kids meet, but not exceed, their needs and have a positive feeding experience. To help parents do just that, here are 8 tips from the wonderful Melissa Halas-Liang, MA, RDN, CDE, founder of SuperKids Nutrition and author of the Super Crew books Super Baby Abigail’s Lunch Time Adventure and Havoc at the Hillside Market.

Partner up. Try to establish a working partnership with your child’s daycare center or preschool. Make suggestions and offer to help implement them, whether that means volunteering occasionally at lunch or chipping in to equip the facility with the tools it needs. Instead of being critical of the facility, take a positive and proactive approach to help improve the way your child eats at his or her home away from home.

Empower them. A recent study out of Penn State University investigated the powerful effect of choice on preschoolers’ fruit and vegetable intake. Researchers found that allowing preschoolers at daycare to choose between three different types of fruits and vegetables at snack time, rather than only one type, led them to put more fruits and vegetables on their plate and subsequently eat more of them. You can encourage your child’s daycare center (or even your nanny or the grandparents watching your children) to empower kids during meal times by giving them a few healthy choices. For example, you can ask, “Would you like red peppers or carrots, apple slices or orange slices?” Doing so can result in a child eating more of the healthy option they chose than they might have otherwise. If you put the proper spin on it and explain to the daycare center or to someone watching your child that this strategy not only empowers kids but it decreases food waste and helps them avoid food struggles, they’re more likely to heed your advice and try out the strategy.

Let them play. When you’re at your child’s daycare facility or preschool, take a look at the play kitchen area and see if the fake food set includes lots of healthy foods. Some research shows that children are more open to trying foods that they see often in their environment. If your child regularly plays with plastic broccoli, they are more likely to try eating it at home!

Serve Fruits and Vegetables First. Ask to observe a mealtime. Once you have a good relationship with your child’s daycare center (or wherever or with whomever your child eats some meals), offer some suggestions. For example, encourage them to serve fruits and vegetables as an appetizer rather than with the main meal. One study found that kids who were served fruits and vegetables first, before receiving their entrée, consumed 25% more fruits and vegetables than those who received vegetables with their main meal. Though it may seem like a small difference, over time switching up the mealtime routine can be a quick, inexpensive, and effective way to improve children’s eating habits away from home. You can also encourage the daycare center to share with other parents any positive results they see as a result of implementing this strategy.

Encourage Whole Foods. If you have a parent snack rotation donation at your child’s daycare or preschool, why not buy something you’d want someone else to serve your child every day. Some research suggests that whole, unprocessed, unrefined foods provide your kids with the most nutrients and fiber to keep kids full and satisfied longer. For example, a sliced apple will satisfy a child longer than applesauce, which will satisfy longer than apple juice. Similarly, grapes are more satisfying than raisins, which are more satisfying than a fruit roll up. You can also send some of these foods with your child that he or she can choose from when being cared for by others.

Suggest snacks. Sometimes it can be difficult for daycare, preschool professionals and caregivers to come up with new snack ideas for the children. So why not approach them with a helpful list of healthy, satisfying snack ideas. Examples include mixed frozen fruit such as strawberries, blueberries, and mango; 100% whole grain crackers, ideally without added sugar; cheese sticks; vegetables arranged on a platter in the shape of a rainbow; or a dip station for fruits and vegetables with hummus or herbed yogurt dip for veggies and peanut butter or vanilla yogurt dip for fruit.

Make food fun. Offer to help out at the daycare center or preschool a few times a year by doing a food-based project. Kids are much more likely to eat well if you make eating well fun. For example, kids can plant their own seedlings and learn how to care for their plants. Herbs like rosemary or chives are easy to care for and perfect for young children. Alternatively, you can suggest that the kids go on a field trip to a garden to learn about the connection between nature, the food they eat, and their own growing bodies. Even reading children’s books on gardening can help pique children’s interest in fruits and vegetables. A fun food game is to compare the sounds different foods make when you make or eat them. Have children try crunching on carrots or listen to popcorn being air-popped. Kids can also get excited about other foods and cultures by having themed lunch days eg. offering Irish foods on St. Patrick’s Day, or serving Native American foods on Columbus day.

Let them cook (or create). For those times when your child is spending the day or several hours with grandma or another relative, why not suggest they cook a meal. You can choose a healthy recipe that you know your child will love and provide the recipe and ingredients to the caregiver. If cooking isn’t an option, the caregiver and child can draw a colorful healthy plate of food or some favorite foods. You can then laminate the masterpiece and keep it at the caregiver’s house to reinforce healthful eating habits the next time the child is there.

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Sesame Street Lessons: Limiting Sweets
Sesame Street Lessons: Limiting Sweets
Sesame Street Lessons: Limiting Sweets

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