Out of all the places to start our Feeding Kids Character series, teaching them to take care of their bodies–the ones that they’ll need every day from here on out–seems like the best place to begin.
Now here come the disclaimers…
Depending on what you read (and whether you’re pitched essential oils, leggings or makeup from the same source), nutritional opinions are all over the place. That’s because food fads come and go but most experts tend to agree on a handful of habits for raising really healthy kids.
None of them will surprise you but all of them are surprisingly easier said than done.
What do all of these things have to do with food? Plenty.
1. Let’s start with eating less sugar.
It’s been a national news story for years, but as the New York Times recently pointed out in their awesome interactive feature, Americans eat way too much sugar every day (and in many cases don’t even realize it, but more on this in a minute). Even for kids, this overdone sugar diet leads to heart disease, diabetes, obesity and in many cases all three. Then consider the short term effects of energy and mood swings, fatigue and cravings on our kids. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
How did we get here?
Food companies add much more sugar than they did when we were kids. Reading labels sounds so nerdy but it’s the only way to know what you’re really feeding your family. Once I started reading labels, I was stunned to find out that a serving of tomato sauce could pack as much sugar as two Oreos. It’s one thing to eat a couple of cookies but quite another to have your whole day’s worth of sugar tucked inside your dinner.
But by changing the way I shopped for a few simple everyday ingredients, I started to turn it around.
Peanut butter doesn’t need palm oil or sugar to be delicious. We get the store brand with two ingredients: peanuts and salt.
Tomato sauce is always going to be a sugar-fest, but I read the labels until I find the option with the fewest grams of sugar. Or I make a very quick and easy version at home (that still includes sugar, because that’s how you make red sauce. Only in this case, it’s a couple of teaspoons for a whole pot instead of per serving.)
Flavored yogurt has as much, and in some cases more, sugar than ice cream. When I serve the kids yogurt, I typically split the difference by mixing plain with flavored. Or we do a simple yogurt parfait with fruit and a drizzle of honey.
Who knew mayo had added sugar? I live in the South and you can bet that most people have very serious feelings about their mayonnaise, but hear me out. These days I buy Duke’s because it doesn’t include sugar. And it’s tasty. #donttalktomeabouthellemans #thereisnomiraclewhip
Most bread has sugar. Like red sauce, you need a little in the recipe to make it work. But I still like to find the lowest amount of sugar, and in this case, the highest amount of other good-for-you ingredients. So I get Dave’s Killer Bread. Costco sells a two-pack and I pick it up every time I’m there. It’s hearty and satisfying and our kids never, ever complain about the nuts and twigs.
Juice is so full of sugar, you might as well be serving soda. Even “100%” juice is still packed with sugar. That’s because fruit itself is sweet. No problem. But don’t forget that a glass of orange juice includes much more juice than peeling one orange and eating it. If juice is a big thing for your crew, try cutting back by half. Or serving fruit flavored water.
Fruit chew snacks. Despite the claim of “real fruit” on the package, these are sweet treats.
How to handle dessert in 2 easy steps
But don’t get me wrong. I’m not an advocate of cutting out sugar entirely. I love dessert and so do my kids. I just want to put up some guardrails so they develop a healthy habit around dessert. Here’s what we do:
- Eat dessert on the weekends
- Make it as decadent as you like
A friend of mine told me this is how his family of five handles dessert: We have dessert on the weekends. That way no one has to ask if it’s dessert night during the week. No discussions, no decisions, easy peasy.
We’ve adopted this idea and done it ever since.
The only problem is that our kids never know what day of the week it is but still, it’s a useful way to set a healthy routine.
When our kids were all very small, I made a lot of low-sugar desserts. But now that almost everyone is at least a preschooler, I’ve shifted course. I’m pretty French about it. On the weekends we make a very rich and delicious dessert, serve everyone a solid portion (about as big as their fists) and something surprising happens. Those rascals almost never finish the whole thing. (Unless it’s ice cream, then it’s usually good to the last lick.)
Their taste buds are just accustomed to eating less sugar. They’re happy and satisfied.
Plus, I feel good about going all out for a delicious dessert because we haven’t been sliding sugar into our bodies all week long. Like a savings account. For chocolate.
Next time, we’re talking about how to get way more veggies and fruit into your family’s life (with as little whining as possible). In the meantime, what are your best low-sugar solutions? Any recipe makeovers? Found any great off-the-shelf snacks at the store?