The percentage of overweight children in the United States has reached epidemic numbers. In fact, one third of our nation’s kids are carrying too much weight as a result of a poor diet high in unhealthy fats and simple sugars and a sedentary lifestyle. Besides these much talked-about causes, experts believe there could be other, less obvious factors that influence the development of obesity and also diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure. Although more research is being done to gain a better understanding about these diseases, improving our children’s diet and helping them increase their physical activity will significantly reduce their chances of becoming obese and, if their Body Mass Index (BMI) is already high, will help them reach a healthy weight.
One of the best ways to improve our childrens’ diet is by following the Mediterranean diet, which consists in consuming healthy fats such as olive oil and nuts, lean meat, fish, whole grains and plenty of fruits and vegetables. Although these guidelines are widely known, most parents find it difficult to convince kids to consume these products because they are not as popular among their peers and parents do not always have the tools to prepare fresh foods tastefully. Nonetheless, there are plenty of ways to use these nutritious options to create delicious, quick meals and snacks that the little ones will enjoy. The following are a few tips to get you started:
• Encourage kids to eat fresh fruit instead of drinking fruit juice for a better source of fiber, which is often lacking in their diets. Have cubes of melon, grapes and other fruit choices easily available when kids come home from school and are hungry for a snack. In the summer, place fruit cubes in the freezer for a refreshing afterschool snack or blend up some fruit and freeze it as popsicles! You can also try giving kids “crudités,” which are cut-up vegetables consumed raw. Not only does the name sound cool but, when served with a creamy bean dip made from cannellini beans, these veggies will have them asking for more. Good options include grape tomatoes, baby carrots and sugar snap peas.
• Get the kids involved in what they eat and make your own trail mix. Ask kids to choose a few of their favorite nuts, seeds and dried fruits on the next grocery shopping trip. Home-made trail mixes are great for lunches and snacks, and packed with healthy omega-3 fatty acids that are excellent for healthy brain function and getting homework done quicker.
• Fish is brain food — that is why they travel in schools. Try to include fish as part of a healthy family dinner at least twice a week. Fish such as mahi-mahi, cod or halibut make great choices. Experiment with flavorful Mediterranean marinades using herbs like oregano, basil and garlic as well as fresh lemon or orange juice. You can also slice and bread the fish into sticks and bake it in the oven — instead of frying it — for a healthy, kid-friendly dish.
• Sandwiches are easy school meals but they can get tiresome. Rev up the flavor and interest by spreading homemade pesto or tapenade instead of mayonnaise on crusty, whole-wheat, toasted bread. Finely slice, marinate and grill chicken or turkey breasts for a tasty alternative to deli meats.
• Who needs cupcakes for school birthdays? Surprise the kids by making delicious fruit skewers with a variety of fruits — and yes, you can dip the strawberries in dark chocolate for a phytonutrient punch they won’t forget. If your kids can’t pass without the cupcakes or other sweet treats, look for healthier, less processed options or dig for a lower-fat, lower-sugar recipe alternative and bake a limited amount.
• Work with your children’s tastes but try to expand their palates. If your kids’ favorite foods are pizza and pasta, try creating healthier versions of their favorite meals by making substitutions and adding vegetables or fruits. For example, substitute pepperoni in pizzas for barbecue chicken and add fresh tomatoes and garlic. Peas and pearl onions add taste and dimension to plain pasta but don’t forget to add the parmesan cheese. Eating meals as a family offers the opportunity for children to learn and experience new foods as well as eating memories they will never forget.
Remember, the goal is not to eliminate all treats and favorite foods from your children’s diet, but to teach them healthier habits, including moderation. If you have a busy schedule that does not allow you to make dishes from scratch, most supermarkets have a wide variety of healthy options, such as pre-cut vegetables and fruits or whole-wheat pizza crust, that will help you save time in the kitchen. For additional resources and ideas, ask your pediatric dietitian, visit an official healthy eating website (e.g., www.eatright.org) or just have fun with it and experiment! Your children’s health will benefit enormously.
Dena Herman is an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences at the UCLA School of Public Health. She is a registered dietitian with a specialty in pediatrics, is the recipient of a number of research awards and has authored more than 25 publications in scientific as well as popular journals.