Helping Kids Love Themselves

On a recent episode of The View, I was introduced to and moved by the story of 25-year-old Lizzie Velasquez. Born in Austin, Texas with an extremely rare condition called Neonatal Progeroid Syndrome—a condition she shares with only two other people in the world—Lizzie stands at 5’2” and weighs in at less than 60 pounds. Because she was born without adipose (fat) tissue, she cannot gain weight. Although many (including kids) might think it’s great to be able to eat what you want without fear of weight gain, Lizzie’s small and slight appearance and protruding bones has made her a target of both disapproving stares and bullying in person and online. Her incredible strength and positive disposition that have no doubt resulted from being raised by extremely supportive parents, Lizzie has used her unique and at times very challenging life experiences to motivate others to overcome challenges and to not let negativity and criticism get in the way of setting goals and achieving their dreams.

Being what many would describe as bone-thin, Lizzie—who is also blind in one eye—was bullied in school for looking different. That experience, and seeing a video that labeled her as “The Ugliest Woman in the World,” led Lizzie to launch The Lizzie Project (aka The Untitled Lizzie Velasquez Documentary). The film will follow Lizzie’s life and journey to the other side of bullying, and hopes to inspire in everyone self-worth and compassion and a more positive environment online.

Seeing how Lizzie conducts herself—and noting she had almost 6 million views for her recent TED talk called How Do You Define Yourself? —made me want to reach out to her. Although we live and raise kids in a beauty-obsessed world, there’s a lot all of us, including children, can learn from Lizzie’s story. There’s so much more to each and every one of us than meets the eye, and Lizzie exemplifies that through her resilience and her positive self-esteem. What impresses me most is how she pays it forward through her great talks, books and her upcoming documentary.

I had the pleasure of chatting with Lizzie. Here are some highlights from our conversation.

EZ: What are some of the physical or health challenges you face because of your syndrome?

LV: Even though many people think I’m weak because I’m so small, I’m not. But even though my bones and organs are strong, I have a weak immune system that makes me vulnerable to getting sick. For example, when I get a cold, it can drag on for a few weeks.

EZ: Why do you think you’ve been able to get past bullying about your appearance and become as resilient as you are?

LV: From day one, my parents have raised and treated me normally. They have always been extremely positive and encouraging. They instilled confidence in me by telling me that I was pretty and by constantly reminding me that I was special and that I was who I was for a reason.

EZ: What would your parents say to you to help you feel better about yourself when you were bullied or when you lacked confidence about yourself for whatever reason while growing up?

LV: When I said I didn’t like the way I looked or otherwise criticized myself, my parents would encourage me to accept myself for who I was. They’d also remind me over and over to be patient and to have faith in God and in who I was and would become. I also remember coming home from school one day and telling my mother that I didn’t like my legs. My mother reminded me that some kids at my school who were in wheelchairs couldn’t use their legs. She made me appreciate all the things I was able to do and to understand the difference between my struggles and the real struggles of some others.

EZ: A reader recently asked, “My (normal weight) 8 year-old said to me the other day, “I want to be the skinniest person in the world.” Yikes! Any advice for parents who are trying to balance encouraging their kids to eat well while promoting a healthy body image?” Unfortunately, in a society that glorifies looks and thinness, many parents can relate to this mom. What would you say to help her help her daughter accept and feel good about herself the way she is?

LV: I’d tell the mother to encourage her daughter to learn to love herself for who she is from the inside out. She can encourage her daughter to make a ‘Love Yourself List’ in which she lists all the things she loves about yourself. She can then post the list so she can see it, and read it until she believes it. Of course, sometimes your self-confidence can be shaken when others judge or say mean things to you. We’ve all been there. But having a ‘Love Yourself List’ to refer to, especially when you feel low, can be a great and positive reminder of how truly wonderful you are.

To learn more about Lizzie Velasquez, check out her website. To learn more about or support her kickstarter campaign for Lizzie’s documentary (it runs through June 1st, 2014), click here.

How do you help your kids feel good about and love themselves?   

Parenting Style: Positive Parenting
Parenting Style: Positive Parenting
Parenting Style: Positive Parenting

Image of Lizzie Velasquez via The Velasquez Family.

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Food Recalls: How You Can Stay Safe

Just as you’re planning to celebrate with family and friends this Memorial Day weekend, the Food and Drug Administration has reported recalls of a variety of foods. As reported by CNN, in just the last week everything from raw clover sprouts, hummus and dip products, walnuts and ground beef products have been recalled because they’ve been linked with dangerous bacteria that have made—or could make—some people very sick.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—the agency responsible for tracking the occurrence of foodborne disease and investigating outbreaks—each year roughly 1 in 6 Americans (or 48 million people) get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die of foodborne diseases caused by bacteria,  parasites and viruses. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) also monitors recalls of meat and poultry products produced by federally inspected establishments.

On the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) website, recalls, market withdrawals and safety alerts for FDA-regulated products are posted. To find out about such recalls, you can sign up here to receive email alerts.

Here’s some information about a few of the recent recalls you likely want to know about:

Raw clover sprouts: According to the CDC announcement on May 22, 2014, seven confirmed and three probable cases of Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli (STEC) O121 infection have been reported in Idaho and Washington. Some types of STEC frequently cause severe disease, including bloody diarrhea and one type of kidney failure. Nine out of ten ill persons reported eating raw clover sprouts in the week before becoming ill. Preliminary traceback investigations indicate that the likely source of the outbreak are contaminated raw clover sprouts produced by Evergreen Fresh Sprouts, LLC of Idaho. The Washington State Department of Health and the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare are advising people not to eat raw clover sprouts produced by Evergreen Fresh Sprouts. To protect yourself against illness from sprouts, check out Sprouts: What You Should Know.

Walnuts: According to a company press release issued on May 21, 2014, Sherman Produce based in St. Louis voluntarily recalled 241 cases of bulk walnuts packaged in 25 lb bulk cardboard boxes and Schnucks brand 10 oz trays with UPC 00338390032 with best by dates 03/15 and 04/15. According to the company, the walnuts were recalled because of their potential contamination with listeria monocytogenes—an organism which can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children, frail or elderly people, and others with weakened immune systems. Short-term symptoms in healthy people can include high fever, severe headache, stiffness, nausea, abdominal pain and diarrhea. Pregnant women contaminated by listeria monocytogenes can experience miscarriage and stillbirth. The recalled products were sold to retailers in Missouri and Illinois from March to May 2014. No illnesses have been reported to date and consumers who have purchased these walnuts are urged not to consume them. Instead, they are advised to dispose of them or return them to the place of purchase for a full refund.

Hummus and dip products: According to a press release issued on May 19, 2014, Prepared Foods manufacturer, Lansal, Inc. (also known as Hot Mama’s Foods) announced a voluntary recall of about 14,860 pounds of hummus and dip products due to concerns about possible contamination with listeria monocytogenes. Although the recall was taken as a precaution, and no illnesses have been reported, the company saw the potential for contamination during a routine test of Target Archer Farms Traditional Hummus (10 ounce) by the Texas Department of Health. Consumers who have purchased the hummus products listed here are urged not to eat them and to dispose of them or return them to the place of purchase for a full refund.

Ground beef: According to a press release issued on May 19, 2014, the Wolverine Packing Company based in Detroit, Michigan recalled approximately 1.8 million pounds of ground beef products (see the complete list of recalled products here). The company believes that the ground beef can potentially be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7. Although the products were shipped for retail and restaurant use nationwide, they were not distributed to the Department of Defense or the National School Lunch Program or for sale in catalogs/on the internet. E. coli O157:H7, a potentially deadly bacterium, can cause dehydration, bloody diarrhea and abdominal cramps 2–8 days (3–4 days, on average) after exposure to the organism. Although most can recover from the infection within a week, some can develop a type of kidney failure (symptoms can include easy bruising, pallor, and decreased urine output). Those who experience such symptoms should seek medical care immediately. The FSIS advises consumers to safely prepare raw meats, including fresh and frozen, and only consume ground beef that has been cooked to a temperature of 160° F (and to use a food thermometer that measures internal temperature to ensure doneness).

While most of the time we don’t need to worry about the safety of the food we buy or consume, some of it can become contaminated through undercooking (eg ground beef), cross contamination (preparing or handling raw meat and having it be in contact with other foods like produce), inadequate hand washing and other ways. While we shouldn’t shop or eat in fear, there are things we can do to protect our families against the dangers of foodborne illness. Staying in the know about alerts and using the resources below can certainly help us decrease our risks of getting sick from food and help us enjoy food and eating as we should.

Product Recalls: What to Do
Product Recalls: What to Do
Product Recalls: What to Do

Are You At Risk for Foodborne Illness?

Foodborne Illness: Especially Dangerous for the Vulnerable

Making Food Safer to Eat

Recipe for Food Safety

For help with safe home cooking, use our free Roasting Guide.

Image of a yellow and black diamond shaped road sign with the words FOOD SAFETY via shutterstock.

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Family-Style or Pre-Plated Meals: Which Are Better?

Have you ever given much thought to which style of serving meals might be best for your kids when it comes to their nutrition and overall health? Growing up, I remember being served food pre-plated. I was always allowed to take more if I was still hungry—and I usually did! I have continued with this tradition with my own sons who are now ages 15 and 12.

At breakfast and dinner, I pre-plate my kids’ food with an amount I think each of them will eat based on their age and stage. Sometimes they eat everything on their plates, and sometimes they leave food over. Either way, if they finish their meal and want more of something—whether that’s more milk at breakfast or some dessert after dinner—they’re allowed to help themselves.

Although I’ll serve food family-style during holidays and when we entertain friends or family, I find a pre-plated style of feeding typically works best for my family, especially on nights when we can’t eat dinner together because of conflicting after-school schedules. Sometimes simply heating up a fresh meal that’s been pre-plated and refrigerated can streamline the process of getting my kids fed. Fortunately, both of my sons eat pretty well, seldom overeat and are at healthy body weights.

Although pre-plating works for my family, many experts suggest a family-style approach to eating may be a better and more empowering way to feed growing children and prevent obesity—especially the 12 million U.S. preschool children in child care programs. In a study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, University of Illinois researchers surveyed 118 child-care providers who work at Head Start, Adult Care Food Program [CACFP] and other programs about their feeding practices for 2- to 5-year old children. Researchers found that while most who worked at Head Start met the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ recommendation to serve foods and beverages family-style—where children select their own portions and serve themselves—most CACFP (66%) and non-CACFP (93%) providers did not.

In the study, the researchers note that serving meals family-style gives children control over the type and amount of food on their plates and helps them self-regulate their energy intakes they learn to put the right amount of food on their plate based on their internal hunger and satiety signals. They also suggest that a family-style approach to feeding increases the ability of teachers to model healthy eating compared with pre-plated service. And because there’s evidence that eating behaviors are already established by school age, the researchers underscore how important it is for adults to help children establish healthy habits during their preschool years.

According to Linda C. Whitehead, Ph.D., Vice President of Education and Development at Bright Horizons Family Solutions, “Family-style dining allows teachers and children to enjoy a meal together in a calm, respectful atmosphere. The table is typically set with child-size plates, cups, and serving bowls. Children are encouraged to not only help set the table, but to serve themselves, pass dishes to their friends and clean up afterwards.” When asked about the benefits of family-style dining, Whitehead says, “The relaxed atmosphere encourages rich conversation and social interactions. Children learn appropriate behaviors, such as turn taking and using words, such as “please” and “thank you.” It also boosts self-confidence and independence, teaches children mathematical concepts, such as less, more, half, and full and builds fine motor skills.”

In their book, Fearless Feeding, Maryann Jacobsen and Jill Castle—both registered dietitians—say that family-style feeding is an authoritative and effective way to help children eat better. As stated in their book, “Family-style meals not only shift the control to your child, but also capitalize on skill development and success.”

To help serve kids family-style, the authors recommend preparing foods in appropriate serving sizes and placing them on platters or in bowls; cutting foods like chicken breasts into 3-ounce portions; offering small potatoes; using 8-ounce glasses for milk; and using half-cup serving spoons to dish out grains, vegetables and fruits. The authors also discourage parents from using the meal table to discuss topics related to nutrition, eating, and food. They say, “Frankly, it can feel like too much pressure, especially if your child is picky or overweight.” They recommend keeping conversation topics light, fun, and entertaining so that the meal table can be a place your children enjoy. Sounds great to me!

If there’s any real downside to making family meals family-style, it might be the inevitable mess kids make when serving themselves. We all know how that goes! Whitehead suggests keeping the atmosphere positive and to see spills and messes as learning opportunities rather than frustrations. “Keeping paper towels close at hand and allowing children to help clean up never hurts,” she says.

Do you feed your kids family-style? If not, will you give it a try?

Make dinnertime easier with these one-pot supper ideas!

Family Dinners: 4 Tips To Make Them Better
Family Dinners: 4 Tips To Make Them Better
Family Dinners: 4 Tips To Make Them Better

Image of family enjoying meal at home via shutterstock.


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Cereal for Breakfast: A Good or Bad Idea for Kids?

If you’re like many Americans, you grew up all too familiar with Tony the Tiger and other characters painted on cereal boxes heavily advertised in TV commercials. Because of all the fun and familiarity surrounding cereal, you probably had more bowls of cereal to start your day than you can count or care to remember. I know I did! And I’m embarrassed to admit that when I was 5-years-old, I’m pretty sure I killed my hamster by feeding him Fruity Pebbles.

Although I continue to eat cereal a few times a week and also feed it to my children, I know how important it is for families to look before they leap when it comes to buying and eating cereal. While many ready-to-eat cereals can provide plenty of vitamins and minerals and make significant contributions to intakes of whole grains and fiber that many children fall short on, they also tend to provide way more added sugar than considered healthy—especially for growing bodies. The added sugar alone can turn a seemingly innocent breakfast into dessert.

In a new analysis, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) ranks 1,556 cereals, including 181 marketed to children, by their total sugar content by weight and compares the findings with current federal dietary guidelines and those by other organizations. Among the findings:

  • 92 percent of cold cereals and 100 percent of cereals marketed to children in the US contain added sugars, some having up to six different kinds including sugar mixed with corn syrup, honey, dextrose or high fructose corn syrup.
  • Cereals marketed to children have more than 40 percent more sugars than adult cereals, and twice the sugar of oatmeal.
  • 78 percent of children’s cereals contain more than 2 teaspoons of sugar in a single serving—more than a quarter of the daily limit for an 8-year-old.
  • For 40 cereals, a single serving (¾ cup or 1 cup—less than many children typically consume in a single sitting) exceeds 60 percent of the daily limit for sugar.
  • 12 cereals including Kellogg’s Honey Smacks and Post Golden Crisp provide more than 50% sugar by weight.
  • Only 47 cold cereals—3 family cereals, 43 adult cereals and one granola)—and 155 hot cereals and had no added sugar.

Although ready-to-eat cereals can certainly pack in a lot of added sugar, especially if kids eat it in oversized bowls or fill their bowl up more than once, they seem to contribute relatively little added sugar to the diets of Americans aged 2 and older when compared to some other foods and beverages. Whereas national survey data estimates that 3.8 percent of added sugar in the diet comes from ready-to-eat cereal, a whopping 35.7 percent of added sugar intake comes from sugary soda, energy drinks and sports drinks alone. Those drinks together with grain-based desserts, fruit drinks, dairy desserts and candy comprise 70 percent of added sugar intake.

Current dietary guidelines suggest a daily limit of 3 teaspoons (12 grams) to 8 teaspoons (32 grams) for children who consume 1,200 to 2,000 calories depending on their age, gender and individual needs. On average, children typically consume two or three times these amounts.

Although the new documentary Fed Up seems to blame sugar alone for the twin epidemics of obesity and type 2 diabetes in children, I do agree with the conclusion that to raise a healthier generation of kids, we do need to reduce the intake of added sugars. But while cereal is one source of added sugar, I believe that it’s important to look at and limit how often and how much we consume all sources of added sugar in the diet including (but not only) ready-to-eat cereal. We also need to look at individual food and beverages choices in the context of our total dietary intake and lifestyle –and teach our kids to do the same—when trying to improve the nutritional value of the diet.

Although the EWG findings may make you never want to eat—or feed your children—cereal again, I don’t think it’s necessary, desirable or realistic to ban cereal altogether from your pantry. Ready-to-eat cereal—especially whole grain, high fiber, low sugar options—can provide busy families with a tasty and convenient source of vitamins and minerals. Cereal can also be a great cluster food that pairs well with nutrient-rich picks like low fat or nonfat yogurt or milk, fresh fruit (or dried fruit with no sugar added) and nuts/seeds.

To choose a more nutrient-rich cereal, look for one that’s 100% whole grain (look for the 100% whole grain stamp, or look for whole wheat, whole oats or another whole grain listed first on the ingredients list). Aim for at least 3 grams of fiber per one cup serving. Look for as little added sugar as possible—one of my favorites is shredded wheat (it also has very little sodium, rare for a ready-to-eat cereal). If your cereal has added sugar, make sure the sugar content is no more than double the fiber content. (For example, if it has 4 grams of fiber per serving, look for no more than 8 grams of sugar on the Nutrition Facts panel.) If you and your kids already eat sugary cereals and don’t want to give them up, eat it in smaller bowls with smaller utensils. Better yet: mix them with lower- or no-sugar cereals. You will get used to the taste if you give it some time. You can also choose more flaky cereals and fewer crunchy, hard, more concentrated cereals and granolas that can pack in more calories (and more added sugar) in smaller portions, or mix them to reduce the load of calories—and added sugars.

To learn more about choosing cereals and reducing added sugar in the diet, check out the EWG’s Recommendations. You can also check out my previous Scoop on Food posts including Empty Calories and Kids and How to Help Your Kids Satisfy a Sweet Tooth and get breakfast ideas here.

Do you and your kids eat cereal?

Image of a good breakfast via shutterstock.

How much do you know about toddler nutrition?

Healthy Breakfast: 3 Quick Meals for Kids
Healthy Breakfast: 3 Quick Meals for Kids
Healthy Breakfast: 3 Quick Meals for Kids

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Summer Meals for Kids Who Need Them

For many kids, summer means picnics, playtime and fun in the sun; ice cream on the beach; or dinners at a favorite restaurant. But for some kids—more than you might think—summer can be a time of uncertainty or “insecurity” as some call it when it comes to food and nutrition.

In the summer, many kids who rely on school during the academic year to provide breakfast and/or lunch will find it more of a challenge to eat well, if much at all. That’s why there’s a strong need to fill the gap left in summer so kids can stay adequately nourished.

Fortunately, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) created the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP). Originally formed in 1968 as part of a larger pilot program, SFSP has operated as a separate program since 1975. It provides low-income children 18-years-old and under with free nutritious meals (breakfast and/or lunch) that meet federal nutrition guidelines throughout the summer. Meals are provided at approved SFSP sites in areas with significant concentrations of low-income children.

Unfortunately, only a fraction of children eligible for the free meals are provided with them. According to Kevin Concannon, the Under Secretary for the USDA’s Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services, “Of the 21 million children who receive free and reduced-priced meals through the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) during the regular school year, only 3.5 million children participate in summer meal programs.”

The good news is that 168 million meals (that includes all SFSP meals and NSLP lunches served in July) were served in the summer of 2013, up from 161 million meals served the summer before. The USDA hopes to continue on this upward trajectory and increase meals served—and children fed—this upcoming summer and needs our help to spread the word to connect these free meals with kids who need them.

Schools, park and recreation departments, libraries, and faith and other community organizations across the nation can provide summer meals through SFSP. To achieve its goal to serve even more eligible children this summer, the program relies on community partners to serve as sponsors or provide meal sites.

Anyone—individuals, schools and community organizations—can help connect SFSP to eligible children and their families.

Because the deadlines for becoming an SFSP sponsor vary from state to state, schools and organizations interested in being a sponsor should contact their state administering agency, usually the state department of education as soon as possible.

To register your site to provide summer meals or to find a summer meal site in your community, call 1-866-3-Hungry or 1-877-8-Hambre (in Spanish). You can also visit the National Hunger Hotline resource directory.

Image of elementary pupils collecting healthy lunch in cafeteria via shutterstock.

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