Tips on Creating Healthy Meals for Kids

Although I don't work directly with kids on a regular basis, I work with a lot of parents and understand that eating healthy does not affect only one member of the family. Ideally, we all want our kids to grow up eating a healthy diet and establishing healthy habits. If kids continue to eat the Standard American Diet (SAD), they will be the first generation to NOT outlive their parents. That's a really sad (sorry for the pun!) statistic. 

It's not easy to change a child's diet but the sooner you do it, the easier it will be. Our taste buds are not naturally created to crave cookies, cereal and candy. We are developed to recognize fruit as a sweet delicacy that is available when it is in season. It's only when we introduce sweets to our children and consistently serve them, that their taste buds no longer think of a strawberry or apple as sweet and turn to candy and baked goods to satisfy a sweet craving. 

Kids do need more carbohydrates than adults and their cells are more sensitive to insulin, which means the sugar is used for energy and less is stored as fat. That said, we should still be careful on the types of carbohydrates we feed our kids. Just like I tell my adult clients, all carbohydrates are not bad, but "carbage" is bad. The first choice should be unrefined carbohydrates, particularly vegetables and fruit. 

If your child is currently eating a lot of refined carbohydrates, it's important to make changes slowly. Kids will rebel and just want things more if you take them all away. Start by changing one thing at a time. It could even be as simple as adding a protein or fat to any of the more sugary foods, which includes fruit. If you serve toast with jelly, add some nut butter. If they eat candy or a piece of fruit, add string cheese or some nuts. This will help stabilize the release of sugar into the bloodstream so they will feel full longer, crave less sugar and have less ups and downs in mood and energy. 

Breakfast is another good place to make changes as it sets the stage for stable blood sugar throughout the day. This will also impact mood and concentration at school. This study showed that a lower glycemic-load breakfast led to better mood and concentration three hours later. Memory and information processing was better with another low GL breakfast on the second day. Adding in eggs, bacon, breakfast sausage, nut butters are usually easy changes. You can also make smoothies with protein powder and coconut oil. Kids usually love smoothies and you can even sneak in some extra greens. Just make sure it's not all fruit and you add some protein and fat. If your kids love cereal or oatmeal, gradually move them to less refined options without added sugar, such as steel cut oats, a higher fat granola or even try my Grainless Granola.

Dinners are another area that have big opportunities for change. Many times I see people serve a completely different meals for the kids. That's setting them up to be a lifelong picky eater. Gradually shift them to eat as you do. For my son, I serve him the same protein and vegetables as we eat but may tweak it a bit so he enjoys it more. For instance, he doesn't like all the vegetables we do so I will give him more of the vegetables he likes. He also prefers steamed vegetables to roasted so I remove his from the oven before they are fully roasted. They taste and look more like steamed vegetables. On occasion he will have some rice with his meal, but it's typically when it's leftover from dinner at our favorite Asian restaurant. Another fun thing we do is play a game called Crunch a Color. You get points for eating real foods in different colors and there are big bonus points for trying a new food!

Now onto probably the biggest challenge with kids - the school lunch! Many people feel that lunch is the most challenging and, let's face it, if they don't like it they won't eat it. They either end up really hungry in the afternoon or get something unhealthy from another kid. It has to be something they will eat. Start by making a list and group foods by category. Then, ask your kids what they will eat. Assemble a lunch that includes a protein, fruit and vegetable. Occasionally, add a starch. Here are some good examples.

Protein: lunch meat (can roll around a vegetable), hard boiled eggs, tin of tuna, cheese, sausage, bacon, leftovers, mini quiche, drumsticks.

Vegetables: carrots, celery, sliced peppers, cherry tomatoes, cucumber, green beans, seaweed snacks.

Fruit: apple slices, oranges, banana, berries, kiwi, grapes, melon, cherries, pear.

Fat: nut butter, cheese, nuts, cream cheese, avocado, mayonnaise, olives, ranch dip, full fat yogurt. 

As a snack or a treat in their lunch you can include a homemade option that has more fat and less sugar. Here are some of the favorites in our home: Banana Chocolate Muffins, Chocolate Chip Energy Bars, Sunbutter Bars.

HRemember you are the best role model for your kids so making healthy choices for yourself will have the biggest impact on them.