What Do I Feed My Kids?

Nothing spurs parental anxiety more than the issue of what to feed their children.

This is not new.

I remember my mom worrying so much that I didn’t eat the right foods or enough, that she made me sit at the table until I finished my dinner. I sat there for hours some nights. I was very stubborn. I also really didn’t like tomatoes or eggplant, so that ruled out a lot of my mother’s culinary creations. At the time, I was mad and nauseated at the thought of eating these foods, but now I realize that my mom had all the best of intentions.

As parents, we are bombarded with nutrition advice for our kids. Some of it is helpful and pertinent and some of it has no legitimate basis. We continuously sift through, trying to make sense of how to apply it to our families. Our children are bombarded as well with food messages… “Eat this! It is tasty and will make you happy!” There is not a whole lot of nutrition education going on in school, and the school lunches are a mess. When parents’ good intentions and confused knowledge collide with our kids’ media-soaked, soda-fueled wants, frustration and stress erupts. Just add it to the list of power struggles we face raising kids in this day and age.

As a Registered Dietitian and a mom of three, I will admit that I have not fed my kids perfectly. I have pop tarts and sugar cereal in the pantry. This is not all they eat, though. These are the treats, the top of the pyramid, so to speak. I also have these things go stale, and I end up throwing them out. So, how to balance?

  • Make every effort to have your children eat breakfast. Include some protein like dairy or eggs to give it staying power. Sometimes, time is so tight in the morning that it is not always realistic to sit down for a meal. But if there is any way to work it in, it will start their day off right. Recent research shows that a high protein breakfast is associated with increased satiety and a healthier weight. If someone overslept, send them with half a bagel and some cheese, a portable yogurt and some nuts, or a smoothie made with skim milk and a supplement like Carnation Instant Breakfast. Slipping some fruit in there is a definite plus.
  • Examine their lunch choices carefully. If you are lucky enough to have respectable food choices at your child’s school (whole grains, lean meats, fruits, and vegetables), then by all means take full advantage. I really hate packing lunches, but the alternative of my child eating pizza and fruit snacks everyday of the week gets me motivated.
  • Go grocery shopping with a purpose. Have an idea (or even better a list) of what meals you are preparing for the week and what supplies you will need to stock lunch boxes. Factor in practice schedules and school activities that may limit preparation and cooking time. Keep it simple on your busy nights. Your cart should be 75% full from items you gathered on the perimeter of the store… lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grain breads/grains, and some lean meats (chicken breasts, fish, sirloin, pork tenderloin).
  • Work at converting your children’s taste buds to whole grain products (whole wheat breads and pastas, brown rice, oats, quinoa) versus refined grain products and sugars. Not only are whole grains more satisfying and delay hunger, but they also provide a significant source of fiber that promotes digestive health. You can look for the “whole grain” stamp from the Whole Grains Council on packages or follow the 10:1 rule of thumb. For every 10 grams (g) of carbohydrate, there should be 1 g of dietary fiber. From the nutrition label, divide the number of grams of carbohydrate per serving by 10. The grams of fiber listed should be greater or equal to 1 to qualify as a whole grain.
  • Certain foods such as dairy and wheat products have developed a sinister reputation. Non-fat/low-fat dairy such as skim milk, yogurt, and low fat cheeses provide calcium, Vitamin D, and protein which it is imperative for growing bodies. If you suspect your child has trouble digesting lactose (the sugar found in milk) or has other signs of an allergy, there are other choices available to provide these vital nutrients. Consult your pediatrician for an accurate diagnosis before eliminating this food group. Gluten has also  been blamed for many maladies including abdominal pain, reflux, indigestion, joint pain, headache, and fatigue. Many people also confuse being “gluten-free” with a more healthful diet. There are individuals who have a true allergy to gluten (also known as celiac disease) or have a gluten intolerance. Diagnosing a gluten allergy or intolerance is also best done by a qualified, licensed health professional. Again, eliminating gluten-containing foods (such as wheat, barley, and rye) eliminates a significant source of energy containing carbohydrate, fiber, and B vitamins so get an accurate diagnosis before going gluten-free. To find a registered dietitian in your area check  www.eatright.org .

We want our children to grow strong, healthy bodies that resist disease and allow them to pursue their dreams. This can put a lot of pressure on a parent!  My philosophy has always been to put the healthy foods in front of them. They can choose how much of it they want to eat. The top of the pyramid foods are allowed in modest amounts on occasion. They are not disallowed, but have limits applied. You are the very best role model for your child and their best advocate. Don’t hesitate to seek advice from a person qualified to give nutritional information (a licensed physician or dietitian) and never stop trying to improve your families nutritional habits.

Just don’t make your kids sit at the table for hours. Trust me, you will lose!

Jennifer Bleiweis is the outgoing Program Director for Girls on the Run of Alachua County. She will be focusing her efforts on reactivating her nutrition practice while continuing to be actively involved in GOTRAC. She lives in Gainesville with her husband, three children, and a small zoo of animals.