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.
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
You snuck in a quick power walk around the soccer field during your daughter's practice and grabbed a sports drink from the team cooler afterward. Good move? Not really -- for either of you. Unless children or adults have been exercising strenuously for an hour or more in the heat or sweating a lot, these drinks are unnecessary, says Cynthia Sass, R.D., author of S.A.S.S! Yourself Slim. What's more, at about 125 calories for a 20-ounce bottle, they eat up a lot of the calories you burned off.
Smart Swap Freeze a few water bottles before heading outdoors so they'll still be super cold when you're ready to take a swig. Even kids who aren't fans of water usually like the slightly icy texture of a bottle that's almost defrosted.
With so many products plastered with gluten-free labels on supermarket shelves, you have to wonder: Should I be skipping gluten? If you have celiac disease, you should definitely avoid gluten, says Drayer. In that case, gluten, a protein in wheat, rye, and barley, causes a severe reaction. Some reports also suggest that children with autism or ADHD may benefit from a gluten-free diet, though it's far from proven. But the rest of us don't need to be concerned. "Despite all the buzz, there's no evidence that eliminating gluten will help boost weight loss," says Drayer. "In fact, many gluten-free foods have the same if not more calories than gluten-containing counterparts and fewer nutrients like fiber."
Smart Swap Especially when it comes to snacks and treats, it's best to curb your craving with a little of what you love rather than a lot of something that tastes just so-so. For instance, you might be satisfied with a handful of your favorite pita chips, but half a bag of a gluten-free snack may leave you longing for more. Instead of buying gluten-free foods, consider smaller portions of treats that you truly do enjoy.
No doubt, they're convenient, but "energy" is code for calories, mostly in the form of refined grains and added sweeteners, says Upton. Manufacturers are required to list sugar (or a sweet equivalent like brown-rice syrup or honey) first if a product contains more of it than any other ingredient. To get around that rule, some companies use several different sources of sugar, so be sure to read through the whole ingredients list. One popular kids' energy bar, for instance, contains 12 grams (3 teaspoons) of added sugar -- the amount in two chocolate-chip cookies.
Smart Swap If you still want a store-bought bar, look for ones that are fruit- or nut-based, such as L?rabar or Pure Organic.
It's probably not worth the hassle to get your picky eater to try a green-spinach or red-tomato flour tortilla. "Veggies make up less than 2 percent of the ingredients," says Sass. "The bright hue may come from food coloring." What's more, they often come in 10- or 12-inch sizes -- that can be the equivalent of three servings of grains. "One of these tortillas packs more calories than two slices of bread," she notes. And if you're making a sandwich with the tortilla, it's easy to pile on the meat, cheese, and condiments because of the tortilla's large surface area.
Smart Swap Buy 6-inch white or yellow corn tortillas. They're lower-cal (about 70 apiece) and whole grain, and have far less sodium than flour-based tortillas. Plus, they're not usually a hard sell for kids, who typically don't complain about the taste of corn. "Spread them with almond butter and top with sliced fruit for a quick and easy lunch you'll both love," says Sass.
Originally published in the August 2013 issue of Parents magazine.