With about a third of seven to 13 year-old Canadian kids classified as overweight, changes need to be made to their eating habits and activity levels. Still, when one child is pleading with you in the store for the latest fruit snacks, and another child at home is boycotting all foods except French fries, what is a stressed and time-starved parent to do? The following breakdown of common 'kid foods' will help you make the healthiest choices.
Cereals targeting children are often very high in sugar. For example, Froot Loops™, Alpha-bits™ and Corn Pops™ each contain about three teaspoons (12 grams) of sugar per 30-gram serving. Even with added vitamins and minerals, these cereals are not the greatest choice for breakfast.
Parent tip: When choosing a cereal, look for brands that contain no more than eight grams of sugar, less than two grams of fat and at least two grams of fibre per 30 gram serving.
Examples of kid-friendly cereals include Cheerios™ (plain or multigrain), Shreddies™ (all varieties), Corn Bran Squares,™ Life™ (plain), and Quaker Maple and Brown Sugar Square™. Traditional cereals like Rice Krispies™ and Corn Flakes™ are low sugar options but lack the fibre that whole grain cereals provide.
Parent tip: If your kids love sweetened cereals, alternate between sweetened, whole grain and old fashioned or quick cooking oatmeal throughout the week. You can also mix whole grain cereal with sweetened cereal to reduce the amount of sugar. When serving sugary cereal, keep the portion small and serve it with fruit, whole-wheat toast and peanut butter.
White milk is the most nutritious choice. It is an excellent source of calcium and vitamin D, both critical for the formation and maintenance of strong bones and teeth. School-aged children and teens need three to four cups of milk (or equivalent milk product) each day. Many girls do not get this amount, putting them at risk for osteoporosis later in life.
What about chocolate and other flavoured milks? You can find chocolate, vanilla, strawberry and banana flavoured milk in your grocer's dairy department. These appealing choices have the same nutritional value as regular milk but are sweetened with three teaspoons of added sugar per cup (250 mL).
Beware of flavoured milk that tastes like your favourite chocolate bar. For example, Rolo™ and Coffee Crisp™ flavoured milks push the limits of what is healthy. While they do provide calcium and vitamin D, they are higher in fat and considerably higher in added sugar, with seven teaspoons per cup. Save these milks for an occasional treat.
Parent tip: If the choice is between flavoured milk and a soft drink, choose the flavoured milk. Read the label to find brands with the least amount of added sugar, or mix flavoured milk with plain white milk.
Juice can be a quick and easy way to help your child get the necessary five to ten servings of vegetables and fruit each day. Just be sure you are choosing 100 per cent fruit or vegetable juice, and not '-ade,' punch, beverage, or cocktail, which are mostly sugar and water. For example, a 500 mL bottle of Tangy Original Sunny D™ contains 14 teaspoons of sugar, while a 473 mL bottle of Fruitopia™ contains 15 teaspoons of sugar. Both have limited vitamins and minerals. While juice can be a healthy choice, watch the amount your child drinks. Juice lacks the fibre of whole vegetables and fruit and is a concentrated source of calories.
Parent tip: Water and milk should be served most often. Limit children less than five years old to half a cup (125 mL) of juice a day.
Sports drinks and sweetened beverages
Sports drinks, soft drinks, iced tea and slushy drinks have become everyday beverage choices for many youth. These drinks are very high in sugar and lack vitamins and minerals kids need to stay healthy. In addition, cola soft drinks and iced tea contain caffeine, which acts like a stimulant to your child's brain. Check the amount of sugar in the following drinks.
Parent tip: Make it a rule in your house that milk and water are the only beverage choices at mealtime. Better yet, don't bring home high sugar drinks and ask your child's school not to sell them.
If your child's idea of fruit is Fruit by the Foot™ or Fruit Roll Ups,™ she is not alone. As you might have guessed, fruit-flavoured snacks are high in sugar and low in the vitamins, minerals and fibre provided by actual fruit (or vegetables). On average, these snacks contain three to five teaspoons of sugar per 25 gram serving.
Parent tip: Serve fresh, canned, frozen or dried fruit most often. Keep fruit-flavoured snacks as an occasional treat. If your child adores the snacks, choose one of the few brands, such as Sun-Rype Fruit-to-Go™ and Co-op Gold Fruit Rolls,™ that have fruit puree or fruit juice as the first ingredient.
Childhood seems to go hand-in-hand with foods like hot dogs, French fries and macaroni and cheese. While it is all right to serve these foods occasionally, your child might enjoy a healthier option just as much.
Parent tip: If your child cannot live without convenience foods, balance them by serving vegetables and fruit at the same meal. Then, serve your child healthier choices during other meals that day.
Fast food and restaurants
Have you ever noticed that at restaurants, children's options are often limited to a soft drink and French fries combined with a hot dog, hamburger or chicken nuggets? Choose grilled cheese (on whole-wheat bread) or spaghetti if available. Adults substitute soup, salad, baked potatoes or mashed potatoes for fries all the time, and there is no reason you cannot do this for your child. Alternatively, order an adult meal (since portions are often very large anyway) and share it with a younger child.
Parent tip: When given the option, swap the soft drink for milk and replace the fries with fruit or a baked potato.
The foods you serve your children when they are young can have a big influence on what they eat later in life. Children depend on adults to introduce and expose them to a variety of healthy foods. If we only give our children convenience or restaurant foods, full of refined flour and artificial taste, their nutritional health suffers. They will also miss out on the great pleasure of tasting the natural flavours in food.
Since children love to cook, get them involved in making simple, healthy items like baked potatoes, lettuce salad, fruit salad or pancakes. Helping out in the kitchen can encourage kids to try the foods they prepare.
Best of all, turn off the TV so your child is not bombarded with advertising and go for a walk. Your whole family will be healthier.