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I'm not going to buy my kids an encyclopedia.
Let them walk to school like I did.
9 Healthy Snack Ideas for Kids
By Joe Wilkes
When I was growing up, a common refrain was "no snacking between meals" or "you'll spoil your dinner." Today, nutritionists are saying just the opposite is true. For kids and adults, it's recommended that we all eat five or six smaller meals spaced out over the day instead of the three traditional pig-outs. This is especially true for children, who, if they haven't already succumbed to obesity, have much smaller stomachs than adults. What this means is that kids don't, and shouldn't, eat as much as grownups at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And their fast-burning little metabolisms will make quick use of what does fit in their stomachs at lunch, which means they're going to have to refuel before suppertime rolls around. So snacking is a good thing, but, of course, not all snacks are good.
The two most important things to consider regarding snacks for kids (and for us adults, for that matter) are variety and portion size. A good rule of thumb is to try and incorporate two different food groups into any snack and to keep the portion size between 100 and 200 calories. The required amount of calories will vary depending on your child's age and activity level, but a snack should ideally be a small energy booster to help them make it until their next meal, not a meal in itself. Hopefully, it'll be a quick bite on the way outside to play and/or exercise, and not a side dish for a TV or video-game marathon. Other things that make good snacks are foods high in nutrients, fiber, and protein and foods low in sugar, sodium, and saturated and trans fats. And bad news for the culinarily impaired—if it's prepackaged, processed food, it's unlikely it will be a healthy choice for your young 'un. But the good news is that children have simple tastes, which usually translates into food that's simple to prepare. Here are some ideas for when your munchkins get the munchies, plus, for the first time ever, my mom's nutritious pancake recipe!
- Vegetables. I know what you're thinking—"Great! I get to force-feed my kids two more times a day!" It's true—vegetables are usually the diciest component of kid cuisine. But it's worth the effort, because veggies give you more nutritional bang for your buck than any other food group. And if you get creative, you can usually find a way to get your kids to eat them without too much emotional scarring. Many dinner table disputes are about kids trying to assert their independence. You can get around this by letting your kids assist in the selection and preparation of the vegetables. If you take them to the farmers market and let them pick out the vegetables, learn about how they're grown, etc., you're more likely to get more buy-in back home when it's time to eat the vegetables. You can also give them choices like celery sticks or baby carrots. But don't use dessert as a negotiating tool, as in the old standby, "no dessert until you eat all your vegetables." You just end up vilifying the vegetables and glamorizing empty calories—and those are values they'll take into adulthood. Talk up the veggies and let them know all the health benefits they'll get from eating them. If you have a little extra time, try carving or arranging the vegetables on a plate to make faces or something more decorative and fun. You can also try serving veggies with a low-fat yogurt or cottage-cheese dip. Click here for some dip ideas.
- Fruits. Fruits are a marginally easier sell than vegetables. They're sweeter and appeal more to kids' palates. Although, one thing to watch out for is fruit juice. A lot of people make the mistake of thinking a serving of fruit and a serving of juice are interchangeable. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting juice for kids to a couple of drinks a day, as juice is a contributing factor to dental cavities and gastrointestinal problems. Whole fruit, on the other hand, provides tons of fiber and other nutrients, and kids can partake of it quite freely, without any adverse effects. As with vegetables, if you have the patience and the knife skills, fruit can be carved into fun shapes or you can make fruit kabobs. You can also come up with low-fat healthy dips like yogurt that kids can dunk their fruit into. On hot summer days, try freezing some grapes or a banana as an alternative to a mid-afternoon Fudgesicle. With both fruits and vegetables, you might consider setting up a big "snack bowl" in the kitchen. Let the kids help choose which fruits and veggies go in the snack bowl, and then give them permission to grab what they want from the bowl whenever they're hungry. This will help them feel like they're in control of what they're eating, but without giving them carte blanche to hit the sugar or the chips.
- Cereals. Kids love cereal and the good news is that a lot of popular commercial cereals have made the switch to whole-grain flour. However, as nutritionist Marion Nestle said in a recent interview, whole-wheat Cocoa Puffs are still Cocoa Puffs. If the whole grains are largely serving as a matrix to deliver a ton of sugar to your child, they're not worth eating. On the other hand, there are a lot of cereals, like Cheerios and the Kashi line, which have a lot of whole grains and not so much sugar. So check the label and try to choose cereals that have a high fiber-to-sugar ratio. Cereals create another opportunity to reinforce a good lifelong eating habit. Try to discourage your kids from eating directly from the box. In fact, here's a way you can replicate the convenience of prepackaged foods right in your own home! Just get some resealable sandwich bags or a bunch of small sealable containers. When you buy a big box of cereal, pour snack-sized portions into the bags or containers. You can even stuff the bags back in the box for storage. This is great for last-minute lunch packing, or your kids can grab a cereal snack for themselves. This will help fight against the temptation for unlimited munching from the open cereal box. Plus, who knows where those little hands have been? When they're elbow-deep in the communal cereal, it's pretty gross when you think about it.
- Peanut butter. One of the best protein sources is a kid favorite—peanut butter. With eight grams of protein in a two-tablespoon serving, peanut butter's a winner. Again, though, portion size is key as peanut butter is fairly high in calories (188) and fat (16 g)—two tablespoons will usually suffice for a snack. Try making that old party favorite—ants on a log. Fill a stick of celery (the log) with peanut butter, then embed raisins (the ants) in the peanut butter. When choosing your peanut butter, try to find brands that only contain one ingredient—peanuts. Some stores even let you grind your own now. Many brands contain so much sugar you might as well be giving your kid frosting.
- Protein. Lunch meat is a great snack, but don't be lured into the sinister den of the Lunchables. You can read more about what makes them bad here. Sliced turkey or chicken are great lunch meats to have on hand. Stay away from processed meats like bologna or salami though. You never know what you're getting, and often you're getting a lot of fat and sodium. If you can't sell a sandwich on whole-grain bread, try making a turkey roll-up—stack a slice or two of turkey, cheese, lettuce, tomato, a low-cal condiment like mustard, and roll everything in a whole-grain lavash, stuff it into a pita, or skip the bread and roll it up on its own. Tuna and salmon are also really healthy, and can be doctored in a salad with some yogurt instead of mayo. Check with your doctor about how much tuna and other types of seafood your child should consume. There is a greater risk of mercury poisoning for younger children, so some limits may need to be observed.
- Trail mix. This is another great way you can involve your children in their own diet. Gather a selection of healthy snacks like unsalted peanuts, walnuts, almonds, pecans, sunflower seeds, unsalted popcorn, raisins, dried berries, dried apricots, oats, healthy cereal, and anything else crunchy or chewy and healthy that you can think of that your kids will like. Despite their availability in commercial trail mixes, chocolate chips and marshmallows should probably be off the list. Put out the ingredients and let your kids choose which of their favorites they're mixing up. For younger kids, you can even present it as if they're making a magic potion or something. By letting them be involved in the creative stage, you'll hopefully get better results in the eating stage. After all, they made it—who are they going to complain to? Some store-bought trail mixes and granola bars are also pretty decent. Just check the labels carefully. Some less-scrupulous companies pack their "health" foods with sugar and saturated fats like coconut and palm oils.
- Pizza. While most delivery and frozen pizza is packed with fat and calories, pizza can actually be pretty healthy. It's basically a bit of bread, some tomato sauce, some cheese, and healthy toppings. And yet again, it can be a meal and an activity for your child. If you don't have the time to make the full-on dough from scratch, you can make pizza with a lavash or a low-fat tortilla, or you can make mini pizzas with whole-wheat English muffins. Add a dollop of sauce and let your child choose toppings from a variety of healthy ingredients: mushrooms, peppers, onions, eggplant, veggie or turkey pepperoni—the sky or the structural integrity of your crust's the limit. Sprinkle some low-fat mozzarella on top and stick it in the oven or toaster oven until melted. Click here for some more pizza tips.
- Smoothies. A lot of kids will refuse to eat any fruits or vegetables unless a massive amount of processing has been undertaken. Here's where the blender or food processor can be your best friend. By keeping a few bags of frozen fruit on hand, you and your little kitchen helper can make your own smoothies. Just pick a combination of your favorite fruits, add a little plain, nonfat yogurt, some ice, some banana slices, or some peanut butter, and blend until smooth. It's a sweet, cold summer treat, and gives your kids all the fiber and nutrients from fruit that a lot of fruit juices miss.
- Healthy-packed cooler. It's summertime, which means it could be time for a family road trip. Hopefully, you'll have room in the car for a cooler packed with healthy snacks like the ones mentioned above, but occasionally, the siren song of the roadside mini-mart or vending machine is too much to resist. You can click here to read more of the best and worst gas station cuisine. Also, the Center for Science in the Public Interest recently released a list of commercially available snack foods that are relatively decent. The list includes: applesauce cups; Chex mix, traditional flavor; fruit cups; low-fat/sugar granola bars; and raisins. But save some money and save some calories. Pack a cooler.
BONUS: My Mom's Pancake Recipe
Like so many of my family's "secret" recipes, this began life on the side of a package of food. In this case, a carton of eggs (no surprise when you see the second ingredient). But this is a pretty good way of sneaking extra protein into your kids' diet—it'll definitely get a better reaction than a boiled egg and a scoop of cottage cheese on a Saturday morning. For the grownups who are watching their cholesterol, my brother came up with a variation, substituting six egg whites and half an avocado for the six eggs. The pancakes turn out a bit green, but if you can get past that, they're quite tasty. You can top them with your favorite fresh fruit. If you can't live without maple syrup, go for grade B or grade C. They contain more of the natural minerals that the grade A syrup filters out. And they're cheaper!
My Mom's Pancake Recipe
1 cup fat-free cottage cheese
Blend or food process first six ingredients on high until smooth. Add milk slowly to reach batter consistency. Cook on a hot, nonstick griddle. Number of pancakes vary by size. Serves 6.
1/2 cup whole-wheat flour (or 1/4 cup whole-wheat and 1/4 cup barley flour)
1/4 cup vegetable oil
Pinch of salt
Dash of vanilla extract
1/4 cup milk
Preparation Time: 10 minutes
Nutritional Information: (per serving)
||Protein: 13 g
||Fiber: 1.5 g
|Carbs: 9 g
||Fat Total: 15 g
||Saturated Fat: 3 g
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12 Steps to Having Fit and Healthy Kids
By Steve Edwards
Kids today are the first in history who will live less time than their parents. The primary reason for this is obesity, which is linked to an assortment of ailments. Childhood and teenage obesity rates have been skyrocketing over the past three decades, and the fatter you are, the sicker you are likely to become. According to a study conducted by Weight Watchers International, Inc. and the American Health Foundation, 25 percent of American children are now officially overweight. This is more than double what it was 30 years ago and the numbers have risen with each successive study.
Fast food takes a lot of the blame, but according to Ken Reed, Director of the Center for the Advancement of Physical Education, lack of exercise is the main offender. "Over the last 25 years, caloric intake in toddlers and young kids has gone up three or four percent, but the level of physical activity has dropped nearly 20 percent to 25 percent." Certainly we need to eat better but, more importantly, we need to find a way to get our kids exercising.
The government tells us that kids should exercise 60 minutes a day, but a study published in The Lancet in 2006 suggests that number is too low for optimal heart health. The study states that kids need about 90 minutes of daily exercise to avoid most heart disease risk factors. Given that kids should sleep about 10 hours a night, spend most of their day in school, and, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, spend an average of five and one half hours a day in front of a TV, game, or computer, we don't need a study to show us that we face the challenge of fitting more activity into a day.
Nutrition, of course, is important too. With a Stop and Stuff on just about every corner, the opportunities to consume the wrong types of calories are abundant. Coupled with the fact that most schools offer low-grade foods to their students, we're starting with an uphill battle in this arena as well.
It's not as gloomy as it sounds. Many of these trends can be easily reversed. In fact, with knowledge on what to avoid and by focusing a bit more on your child's physical fitness, you can pretty much assure that your child grows up strong and healthy. Here are 12 steps to ensure that you have healthy kids.
- No bottles before bed. In fact, no bottle at all seems like a better bet as kids that are breastfed are less likely to be obese. A bevy of recent studies, which show infant obesity rates as high as 44 percent in some demographics, have linked a large part of the problem to sending infants to bed with a bottle. Not only is the child getting more calories, it's creating a learned response to eat before bed that is hard to reverse as the child gets older. Infants should have some body fat, but an obese infant is more than twice as likely to grow into an obese adolescent, who is more than twice as likely to become an obese adult.
- Make your toddler toddle. The 90-minute guideline for exercise is for school-age kids, but it's recommended that younger children get even more. Infants should be encouraged to move as much as possible because it develops motor skills that will help them throughout their life. Toddlers should have at least 30 minutes of planned activity per day and 60 minutes of free play, where they're allowed to move and roam as they like. Preschool-age kids should get at least 60 minutes of planned activity and 60 minutes of free play. With life more hectic than ever, and both parents often working, this may take some planning and creativity but, hey, think of all the time and money you'll save when your kid never has to go to the doctor.
- Walk to school (or at least some of the way). This alone could make one of the biggest differences in activity levels. A generation ago, most self-respecting parents would laugh at their child's suggestion to drive them to school. Nowadays, lines of SUVs stretch out for blocks around campuses filled with kids burning nary a calorie whilst waiting to be dropped on the front step of the school. In some neighborhoods, this lost time is enough to fill most of the child's exercise requirement.
Lack of busing can shoulder some of the blame but the primary reason is fear. The world has gotten scary, or so we think, and parents drive their kids to keep them safe. In reality, the damage done from lack of activity is putting them at far more risk. According to former Department of Justice statistician Callie Rennison, our fears are mainly based on sensationalism in the media, which seem to promote every child abduction to the top of the headlines. "99.9 percent of child abduction cases are family related," she states. "Statistically, our kids are much safer in public than they've ever been."
Numbers aside, most parents will likely balk at the idea of making their kids the lab rats in some "walking to school" experiment. But, at least, you can drop them off close to school. The last part of the commute, the part while you're waiting in line, is a place where your kids could be moving in what is probably one of the safest situations imaginable—a line of cars filled with highly-protective parents.
- Fight for recess. As schools' budgets dwindle because "results" are based on test scores, "optional" classes like recess are being cut. But it can be argued that recess is one of the most important classes your child has. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), it's not just how much children exercise that counts but how long they exercise for that's important. Kids should not exercise for prolonged periods of time. They benefit far more from short bursts of exercise throughout the day. This is the reason that recess periods have been included throughout a typical day of school—those that are now being threatened if they aren't already gone.
But don't stop at the inclusion of recess either. One study on third graders showed that their recess only included 25 minutes of vigorous activity per week. This, as they might say on ESPN, isn't going to get it done. Inquire about recess as though it were any other course important for your child's scholastic development and demand that it be effective.
- Juice: it's not for breakfast anymore. The American Academy of Pediatrics reports that many children get most of their calories from beverages, when they'd be better off getting them from fresh fruit and other healthful solid foods. Most of these calories come from soda (more on this below), but juice can fly under the radar, masquerading as a health food. Take a look at the orange juice label. This former icon of a nutritious breakfast, which is still praised in some less-enlightened cultures, is mainly sugar. The refining process has leeched most of its useful ingredients and all of the fiber, turning a perfectly healthful food, an orange, into little more than a morning sugar rush.
- The cafeteria: just say no. Brown bagging is back. Having your child bring their lunch from home can ensure they're eating well. School cafeterias have been getting progressively worse. Despite the huge successes enjoyed by some that have switched to healthier menus—for example, check out what happened at this school—most feel too restricted by budgets and bottom lines not to farm out their concessions to the lowest bidder.
Of course, as a parent, you have some say in this. Whether you child goes to public or private school, all are accountable to their community base. Parents have banded together in many communities to change their school's nutritional structure. You can too.
- Enforce TV and game limits. You got the part about five and a half hours a day, right? That was an average. We could probably surmise that this time increases in relation to body mass index (BMI). That's a lot of hours of not moving.
You can make arguments that games, TV, and computers are educational. But even if you monitor your child's content so that it's 100 percent educational (if this is possible), it's important that you enforce time limits for sitting still. Sitting for extended periods is not only bad for you but it instills a habit for, you guessed it, sitting for a long time. These devices are addictive, the same as any food or drug can be. Without foresight and a plan, it's possible for even the best intentioned of us to find ourselves constantly craving our fix in front of a monitor.
- Make exercise a habit. While we're discussing habitual behavior, exercise is one habit you want to develop in your children. While you're structuring their day add an exercise period. You needn't get scientific and write a periodizational exercise program. In fact, you shouldn't. But by scheduling exercise at a young age they'll get used to the feeling that it's something they should be doing daily.
Keep in mind that some exercise is inappropriate for a growing body. Weight training is warned against and rightly so in some cases. This doesn't mean that resistance training should be avoided, which can include weights. What you don't want growing bodies to do is a lot of maximal lifting with heavy weights. Exercises like push-ups, pull-ups, and a lot of gymnastic-type movements are great. Most home exercise videos are perfectly fine for kids. For young kids, things like Tony & the Kids! may be more fun, but your child is pretty much ready for Turbo Jam® or Power 90® as soon as they feel like trying it. Just don't let your 10-year-old start power lifting with Magnus down at Man's World.
- Assign chores. Just because we find child labor in the developing world appalling doesn't mean that we're bad parents if we have our kid mow the lawn. Children should learn to do the same work around the house that you have to do for them. Weeding, sweeping, raking leaves, and doing laundry are all calorie-burning activities that add up little by little. Sure, they'll complain, but that's a lot easier to deal with than a case of type II diabetes. Just tell 'em to be happy they don't have to put in a 12-hour shift in a Honduran factory like some kids do.
- Stop drinking soda. Well, duh. Perhaps you haven't heard this enough but soda accounts for more calories consumed than any other food. Teenagers in America get an estimated 13 percent of their calories from soda, making it nearly impossible to eat a balanced diet. Diet sodas are terrible, too. Want more convincing, start here.
- Try some sports. Not all kids are good at sports but almost everyone has an aptitude at some physical activity. Start your child young by allowing them to experiment with different sports. The more sports they try, the easier it will be for you to see which ones they excel at and which they don't. A more benign approach to the old East German method of finding athletes at a young age, it's a great parenting tool because it helps you guide them into things they'll do well at. They get exposed to different things, get some exercise, and, in the end, you'll probably find something they'll be good at—or at least decent—which will help their self-esteem as they develop. It's hard for kids to understand why they're bad at something. This tactic can help them, and perhaps you, too, see how the human body is designed and why it's normal to be different. We can't all be the star quarterback but we can all be the star something, which will be a lot easier to achieve if you're aiming for something you have an aptitude for.
Keep in mind that sports don't just mean team or traditional sports. Martial arts, snowboarding, swimming, dance, and rock climbing are all just as effective as football and soccer for building healthy bodies.
- Get outside. When we grow up some of us will be inside people and some will be outside people. As kids, however, we should all get some exposure to the great outdoors. There are an endless number of outdoor activities you can choose from, but the simplest, hiking, is one of the best activities you can do with your kids. It's great exercise, especially if you live around hills or mountains, which will ensure that the intensity will be high. It builds motor skills because you walk on rocks and trees, etc. And it's a learning tool because you'll encounter the natural world and, most likely, develop an interest in the way it works. You don't need to have Yosemite in your back yard to enjoy hiking. Any city park will do, especially for kids who still find wonder in the most basic natural acts.
Check out our Fitness Advisor's responses to your comments in Steve Edwards' Mailbag on the Message Boards. If you'd like to receive Steve Edwards' Mailbag by email, click here to subscribe to Steve's Health and Fitness Newsletter. And if you'd like to know more about Steve's views on fitness, nutrition, and outdoor sports, read his blog, The Straight Dope.
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Test Your Snacks for Kids IQ!
By Joe Wilkes
- 1 Betty Crocker Fruit Roll-Up. This little fruit leather snack has almost 2 teaspoons of sugar. Not that much compared to some other things, but an entire container of animal crackers has about the same amount. Also, the animal crackers aren't as liable to stick to your teeth and contribute to tooth decay. One roll-up has about 50 calories and 1 gram of fat.
- 1 3/4-cup serving of Cap'n Crunch (no milk). The Cap'n brings 3 teaspoons of sugar to breakfast—meaning that about half the calories (110) from this breakfast are empty. Compare this to Cheerios which have less than 1 gram of sugar (less than a 1/4 teaspoon) and 2.3 grams of fiber for the same serving, more than twice as much fiber as the Cap'n.
- 1 6.8-oz. pouch of Capri Sun Tropical Punch. This little space-age pouch contains a little more than half the liquid of a can of soda, but doesn't skimp on the sugar. It contains 25 grams, or the equivalent of over 6 teaspoons of sugar—making all 90 of its calories pretty much empty. Ounce for ounce, it contains more sugar than most sodas.
- 1 package of Hostess HoHo's (3 cakes). These little nasties that I vainly tried to trade my apple for every day on the playground have 42 grams, or 10-1/2 teaspoons, of sugar per serving. At least they have 2 grams of fiber. But you're better off sending an apple. I eventually forgave my mom (sometime in my twenties), I'm sure your kids will forgive you, too.
- 1 12-oz. can of orange Fanta. It's caffeine free, but that's about all you can say for it. The can of Fanta contains 51.8 grams or about 13 teaspoons of high-fructose corn syrup. Imagine ladling 13 teaspoons of sugar into a tall glass of water with some artificial coloring. That's essentially what kids are drinking, for a total of 164 empty calories. It truly is the "The Worst Food on the Planet." If you want to read more about the evils of sugar, click here.
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