Nutritional pitfalls

We all start off with good intentions, but busy schedules, picky eaters and plain old moments of weakness can easily knock us off the track to healthy eating. Our nutrition columnist, Madeleine Greey, looks at some common dietary roadblocks and how to get around them

Roadblock: No brekkie
We all have our excuses — Mom needs a shower and a blow-dry before work, there’s a grumpy eight-year-old refusing to wake up, and a toddler who needs help getting dressed. Even when parents can find time to serve up a healthy breakfast, there are moans of “I’m not hungry” and sleepyheads slouched over placemats. According to dietitian Rola Zahr of the BC Dairy Foundation, “it takes 20 minutes for our bodies to signal hunger after waking up.” Talk about a challenge!

But empty tummies have a big impact on kids’ learning. Zahr points out that children who don’t eat breakfast have less focus, lower test scores and more sick days. That’s because hunger can lead to listlessness, lethargy, headaches and stomach pains, not to mention anger, anxiety and confusion. What’s more, says Zahr, children with growling bellies are less likely to make good food choices when lunchtime finally does arrive, and more likely to fill up on foods that are high in sugar, fat and calories and low in nutrition.

Disaster detour
• Set the breakfast table at night while you’re making lunches.
• Wake up earlier to give tiny tummies time to get rumbling.
• Give the kids a message that’s meaningful: “Eating breakfast will help you do better in math.”
• Make a balanced breakfast that hits three food groups. From cold pizza with a piece of fruit to a smoothie with toast and peanut butter, anything goes.

Roadblock: Portion distortion
Even nutritious foods, such as juice, are prone to being supersized right out of their healthy status. It kind of sneaks up on you — then you realize your preschooler is knocking back six cups of apple juice a day, every day. Sure, juice is full of vitamins, but it’s also full of sugar, and too much means less room for other wholesome foods. Dietitians of Canada recommends that children aged one to six consume 125 mL to 175 mL (½ to ¾ cup) a day. They’d rather see kids eating whole fruit and benefiting from all the fibre it has to offer.

We’ve seen so many venti frappu­ccinos and cookies the size of Frisbees that these portions have become the new normal. And family meals have followed suit. We’re serving bigger portions and studies confirm that if we serve it up, kids will eat it — all.

Disaster detour
• Give kids a visual reference. Registered dietitian Caroline Valeriote of Kitchener, Ont., piles 16 packets of sugar beside a 700 mL Big Gulp to give kids the real picture on sugar content. A two-year-old’s portion of each food group at dinner — be it veggies, grains or protein — should be no bigger than his palm. As it grows, so too should his portions, says Zahr.
• Downsize your dishes. Take a look at the plates and bowls you’re using in your home. A ½ cup (125 mL) of ice cream (a typical serving size listed on nutritional labels) looks pitifully small in the average cereal bowl, but in a little bowl it looks much more appealing. For a visual guide to healthy portions, see Canada’s Food Guide.

Roadblock: No time

You’re in a rush, racing to and from work, and ferrying the kids around at night. Something’s got to give and guess what gets the squeeze? Breakfast, lunch and dinner.

“It all boils down to planning,” says Toronto dietitian Sue Mah, whose kids Abbey, six, and Ben, eight, have hectic sports schedules. “Thursdays are the worst day for us, so I plan something easy like fish sticks for dinner.” She also knows Abbey will get bored sitting through her brother’s hockey practice, so she sneaks in some prepared fruit or sugarless gum.

Disaster detour
• Make a weekly meal plan, then write your shopping list. This prevents the dreaded “nothing to eat” moment when you open the fridge at 5:30 p.m., and reduces dependence on takeout.
• Plan simple, fast meals, such as pizza on whole wheat pitas, easy egg dishes, make-your-own tacos or sandwiches for dinner. Dinner doesn’t have to be fancy.
• Keep a running list of simple, healthy meals your family loves, to help jog your memory when you’re too hungry to think!

Roadblock: Family dinners = war zone

We’ve all been there, slaving away to make a healthy dinner, only to be greeted with a chorus of “Yuck!” when we sit down at the table. Before you know it, dinner has escalated into a familial version of Star Wars.

Disaster detour
• Revisit foods your kids have rebuffed in the past. Sometimes children have to try a new food 10 times before they surrender to the power of The Force, but most parents give up after two or three tries.
• “Stay neutral during mealtimes. It’s hard not to think about all the time, money and effort that went into the meal. But don’t say a word,” Valeriote warns parents.

Roadblock: Mindless eating

Eating in front of the TV. Munching on ham­burgers while buckled up in the car. Hitting the keys of a computer or DS, between mouthfuls…. Attention suckers abound, but kids need to get the message that at mealtimes, the best thing to zero in on is the food.

Disaster detour
• Slow down. According to dietitian Jane Dummer of Kitchener, Ont., eating slowly allows us to become conscious of satiety levels — giving our bodies the chance to say, “I’m full.”
• Make meals a family affair: Kids who regularly eat family meals tend to eat healthier foods, enjoy better health, engage in fewer high-risk behaviours and perform better in school.

Roadblock: Snack attack

It’s party time and the chips and Cheezies have arrived. It doesn’t matter if it’s birthday cupcakes that trundle off to school or the loads of buttery popcorn and pop that have become the standard family movie night fare — mindless munching has become a way of life for many of us. Not that snacking is wrong, but it’s important to remember that snack time is often when kids are most willing to eat fruits and veggies, says Jan McCabe, a public health nutritionist from Sydney, NS.

Disaster detour
• Be the gatekeeper. If you don’t stock your cupboard with pop, chips and cookies, then there’s nothing to limit or nag about. Keep a steady supply of cut-up fruits and veggies at kid level in your fridge — they tend to eat more of this stuff if you give them dips or set it out after school or before bed.
• Practise what you preach. Why would your little darling want a tub of yogurt when he sees you eating chips?
• Set limits and normalize “junk.” If parents totally outlaw treats, kids are likely to binge when they score them elsewhere. So let these “sometimes foods” in the door once in a while, and serve individual bowls of plain popcorn or pretzels rather than having the whole family dig into a giant communal one.

FILED UNDER: