It's hard enough to get your kid to eat right. You don't want to waste months persuading him to try a new food and then find out it's a nutritional dud. "Many products in supermarkets and restaurants have a 'health halo' -- they sound better than they are," says Brian Wansink, Ph.D., director of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University and father of three young girls. "So it's easy for families to get duped." Since you don't have time to add diet detective to the jobs you already juggle, we did the sleuthing for you. While these foods don't live up to their stellar reputation, we came up with alternatives that are better than you thought.
multigrain bread or pasta
Think you're getting loads of whole grains? Maybe, maybe not. "Multigrain simply means that more than one type of grain was used in making the product," says Lisa Drayer, R.D., author of The Beauty Diet and the mom of two girls, ages 3 and 9 months. "Some brands have a bit of whole grains. The rest are refined -- stripped of antioxidants, minerals, and other nutrients during processing." And don't be fooled because the bread is dark or looks, well, grainy. Manufacturers may use molasses or caramel coloring to make their grain-based products appear healthier than they are, explains Drayer.
Smart Swap Look for brands labeled 100 percent whole grain or 100 percent whole wheat and be sure to carefully check the ingredients list. A whole grain should come first. If your family doesn't like the taste or texture of traditional whole-grain breads, consider trying a soft sandwich loaf with a mild flavor, such as Sara Lee Soft & Smooth 100% Whole Wheat Bread and Arnold Soft Family 100% Whole Wheat.
Unfortunately, it's pretty easy to ruin a perfectly good bowl of leafy greens and vegetables. Most restaurant salads -- and even the ones you put together at the salad bar -- are loaded with fatty meats, cheese, croutons, and creamy dressing. For example, the Pecan-Crusted Chicken Salad at Applebee's has 1,320 calories. "Overdoing it on healthy ingredients, like avocados and nuts, can also turn a salad into a diet disaster," says Julie Upton, R.D., coauthor of Energy to Burn: The Ultimate Food and Nutrition Guide to Fuel Your Active Life.
Smart Swap "Three fourths of any salad should be greens and veggies," advises Upton. "The rest should be lean protein like grilled chicken, hard-boiled egg, shrimp, tofu, or beans, and a small portion of one healthy fat, such as avocado, nuts, olives, or cheese. The fat helps you absorb the nutrients in the veggies." And watch the dressing. Every tablespoon adds up to about 70 calories. At restaurants always ask for it on the side and use it sparingly -- 430 of the calories in the Applebee's salad come from the dressing. If you're trying to get your kids to eat salad, take a slightly different approach. Start with veggies you know that they already like, such as cucumber coins or shredded carrots, and shred in a little bit of tender lettuce. Then give them carte blanche for one or two toppings -- like dried fruit or shredded cheese. Put on the dressing for them so they don't overdo it. Once they begin to like salad you can gradually increase the amount of lettuce and other healthy mix-ins.
True, yogurt is packed with protein and calcium, which are important for you and your kids. What's the problem? The sugar. While yogurt contains some naturally occurring sweetness from milk, most fruit-flavored brands (Greek ones too) have at least 2 teaspoons of added sugar. Four- to 8-year-olds shouldn't get more than 3 teaspoons of added sugar daily and your limit is 6 teaspoons.
Smart Swap Yogurt is too healthy to eliminate altogether, and you shouldn't give your kids yogurt with artificial sweeteners because they haven't been adequately studied in children. So the best bet is to buy plain low-fat Greek yogurt and stir in summer-sweet, ripe mashed berries, banana slices, or melon slivers to make it tasty. If you take your yogurt to go, just portion it out into small containers like Oxo's Good Grips Mini LockTop Containers. $10 for four; oxo.com