Play With Your Food

Let’s play “Let’s Pretend”. What would happen if you were invited out to dinner at a restaurant, knew nothing about the food they served there: if it was healthy or even tasted good?  Once you arrived, you were not given a menu or asked what your preference was and suddenly a plate of something ‘unknown’ and ‘unidentifiable’ was put down in front of you.  Do you dig in with a smile on your face or say “no way”?  I would imagine that only the extreme foodie wouldn’t have a problem with this but the rest of us would.  I wouldn’t eat a meal if I didn’t know what it was made of and how it was prepared.

Doesn’t the same thing happen to our kids at dinner on most nights of the week?  Children have been so far removed from food; the growing, selecting and preparation that it is no wonder that when they see a candy that glows in the dark or blue applesauce or neon pink yogurt, that they think these products are food. We need to engage all of children’s senses around food so that they come to their senses when choosing what foods they will and will not eat. Let them read about a new food (vegetable, fruit, legume, grain) pick it up, squeeze it, smell it, wash it, cut it up, play with it and really get familiar with the new food before asking them to take a bite.  This ‘play’ also teaches children what food should look and feel like so that when they are faced with junk food it will look like junk to them.

We all fear the unknown when it comes to food.  There is actually a name for it; neophobia, and this fear is built into our genes as a survival mechanism.  It kept us from eating everything we found while toddling around as a two year old. Years ago a child would have helped his parents till the ground, plant a seed, water the seedling, and pick the vegetable before they were asked to eat it. They also most likely helped their mother and grandmother in the kitchen prepare dinner.   This generation of children has no idea where food comes from.

I am not asking that you turn your kitchen into a short order diner but I do want you to involve your kids so that they are familiar with what they are eating before it is put down in front of them. Have your child choose a new food; vegetable, fruit, fish, or legume for example, at the store once a week and bring them back into the kitchen to play with their food before serving it to them to eat.

Your Child’s Body is the Boss

Our bodies tell us which foods work for us and which ones do not but we often times don’t listen, probably because we don’t want to hear what our body is telling us. Who wants to give up dairy or wheat or chocolate if they don’t have to? Not many people that’s for sure. While it is interesting and informative to listen to the latest nutrition news, recent findings are never more important than what makes your body feel good and healthy.  I am not talking about eating a bowl of ice cream and feeling fantastic right after, I am referring to how you feel later that night or the next day.  Do you feel light and energetic, or sluggish and tired?  Most of us have overlooked these subtle messages for years and we wake up one day and feel old or in pain and think what happened, what drug can fix me now?

The same holds true for our children.  Every lecture I give has at least several parents in the audience who are worried about how their child reacts to a certain food; most of the time their concern is about dairy. They have usually already spoken with their child’s pediatrician and some have even had their child tested for allergies. If their belief is not confirmed from a standard allergy test many go back to giving their child the food that they believe their child reacts to.  It is easier to make a change in our child’s diet when we have definitive proof from a blood test.

What is a parent to do when their observation is not supported by an allergy test? What if you are convinced that sugar makes your child hyperactive and your doctor tells you that there is no scientific proof that sugar can do that (that’s the truth by the way)? You trust your instinct! I recommend that parents eliminate the suspected food or drink for 3 to 5 days, observe their child’s behavior and then add back the suspected food and observe again. Your child will either react and confirm your suspicion or they won’t. If you are not sure, remove the suspected food for longer but it is best to have guidance when you do this.

Depending on the food your remove you may need to follow the advice of a pediatrician or nutritionist that works in the area of food sensitivities; naturopaths are great for this. You don’t want to remove dairy from your child’s diet and not replace it with something else if that is their primary source of protein and calcium for example.  Once you are armed with the proof you need, make the necessary changes and inform your child’s pediatrician about it. Just don’t expect them to agree.

5 Steps to Switching Your Family to Whole Grains

Focus this month on switching your family over to whole grain products. Eating whole grains is a challenge for many of us and is up there in the top 2 ‘eating fights’ we have with our kids. Follow these five steps for success.

Step 1 Prepare Yourself by Being Label Savvy: Buying whole grain products can be very tricky indeed. Just take a look down the cereal or bread aisle: Made with Whole Grains, 100% Whole Grains, contains 1 serving of Whole Grains jumps out at us. What should you believe?

  • Select those items that have a whole grain as the 1st ingredient on the ingredient list: “whole wheat”, “whole corn”, “rye berries”, whole oats” for example
  • Don’t believe the front of the box. Avoid “made with whole grain” as these products can have only a tiny amount of whole grain in them
  • Look for at least 3 grams of fiber per serving (2 grams of fiber if the serving is 80 calories or less)
  • There are 2 Whole Grain stamps developed by the Whole Grain Council that you may see on the front or back of a package.

1. The Whole Grain stamp means that there is some whole grain in the product (a minimum of 8 grams of whole grain). Check the ingredient list to see what else in the product as these might not be the best choices.
2. The 100% Whole Grain stamp means the product is made with 100% whole grains. A minimum amount of whole grains in the product must be 16 grams. Products that have this stamp are a great whole grain choice.

Step 2 Begin with Breakfast: Most children start their day eating foods high in sugar and processed grains. Take one to two weeks to make over their breakfast to one that contains a serving of whole grains which will provide them the energy they need over a longer period of time

  • Switch cereals made with processed grain to those made with whole grain (whole oats, whole corn, whole wheat
  • Offer bagels or bread made with whole wheat (1st ingredient whole wheat) instead of processed wheat (white flour, enriched flour, wheat flour) bagels or bread
  • Toaster cakes, donuts, cinnamon rolls, and many muffins (those made with processed flour) are no better for your child than offering them a piece of cake for breakfast. Breakfast does not need to be fun; it just needs to be healthy. Save these items for occasional treats.
  • Serve oatmeal made with whole oats and less than 4 grams of sugar per serving

Step 3 Focus on Breads: Switching your child to whole grain bread is difficult and may require an incentive. Give younger children a sticker and older children 5 points every time they eat whole grain bread. When they reach a certain amount of stickers or points (you decide) reward them with something that they want: time with you alone or a toy for example.

Step 4 Find and Replace Processed Food: Look at the label of the crackers, pizza, pasta, rice, baked goods and other items made with grains and replace them with a whole grain product. You can do this slowly by adding ¼ the amount of whole grain to the processed grain. For example when making pasta, add some whole grain pasta (¼ the amount) to the pasta made with white flour. Continue until you have switched over to the whole grain product.

Step 5 Serve Other Whole Grains: There are many grains besides wheat, corn and oats that most of eat on a daily basis. Try quinoa, buckwheat, teff, Kamut, spelt, amaranth and millet to name a few.

Undernourished in a Land of Plenty?

The typical diet of a child in America looks like this: minimal amounts of fruits, vegetables and whole grains but lots of junk food, soda and juice. In fact many children and adults are eating their weight in sugar every year! If you look up the definition in the Webster dictionary of malnutrition you see the following: faulty nutrition especially due to inadequate intake of nutrients. Would the typical kids’ diet meet this definition?  I think so.

When I look around at what I see children eating at soccer games, in restaurants and at school for snack, I am reminded of a thesis question I was given during my oral examination for my doctorate in nutrition. The dean asked me if a person would be considered to be starving if they ate dog food every day. You may think that this is a weird question but eating pet food is a real issue for the elderly. Many older Americans do not have enough money to buy what they need so they resort to the cheap price of cat or dog food for nourishment.  My answer to this question was yes they were starving even if they got the protein, fat and carbohydrates that they needed every day. The question was challenging because there was no one correct answer. Nutrition-wise they could survive on dog food but humanity-wise it wasn’t right.

This question had a major impact on the way I practiced and continue to practice nutrition. Years later I am struck between the similarities of this question and what I see kids eating every day. When I look at children eating chips, and drinks dyed neon blue, candy, crackers, cookies, and diets full of processed “food”, how is that any different than the elderly eating dog food?  Nutrition-wise you can dump vitamins and minerals into junk food and soda but does mean that our children are getting what they need to grow up to reach their potential? My answer would be the same as it was for the elderly: our children are undernourished even if they may get their fat, protein and carbohydrates from junky sources.

Kid’s bodies, as well as our own, are genetically built to thrive on a plant based diet with a limited amount of animal protein added (if desired). Our bodies are not equipped to handle the enormous amount of sugar and unhealthy fat that a junk food and fast food diet delivers. Do we need any more proof of that?  Children who consume a diet high in sugar and junk food are at an increased risk of the following: being overweight, developing diabetes, developing heart disease and cancer, as well as an increased risk of having a behavioral or learning disorder. If you are worried about your child’s diet, don’t fret. Turning kids’ diets around does not need to be stressful; just make healthy changes one step at a time. Build Healthy Kids mission is to help you do just that.

The Great Apple Juice Debate

Dr Oz really stepped in it this week with his analysis of apple juice.  His team sent major brands of apple juice to a reputable laboratory and the results came back showing elevated levels of arsenic in some brands of apple juice.  This finding caused uproar within the scientific community to the point of Dr Oz being accused of fear mongering on television. The media went wild and many parents were left to yet again watch a cat fight occur between experts touting nutrition knowledge.

Regardless of whether or not experts agree with the results from Dr Oz’s apple juice experiment, several other issues have been swept under the rug because they are overshadowed by the arsenic debate. Parents need to be aware of the fact that:

  • Conventional apples are #1 on the dirty dozen list. This is a list from the Environmental Working Group that calculates pesticide residue on produce and ranks the top 12 offenders. Apples topped the list. It’s not just apples from overseas that are the problem,
  • Juicing concentrates the amount of pesticides and sugar found in a single apple. Our kids are drinking too much juice and as such are ingesting a concentrated source of pesticides especially if they drink more than the ½ to 1 cup recommended daily.
  • We import 60% of our apples from China. Because of this we have no jurisdiction over what types of chemical pesticides China uses on their apples, including arsenic. We banned the use of arsenic years back and some still lingers in the soil.  Let’s support our own apple growers where we can be assured of what we are getting. Let’s not have a repeat of the tainted dog food and baby formula that China sent us.
  • The amount of arsenic allowed in juice is higher than that allowed for in water (23ppb versus 10 ppb). I know many children who drink more juice than water and as such the levels allowed in juice should be lowered to reflect this potential.
  • The safety of inorganic and organic arsenic is still being studied so it may not be totally accurate to say one is fine while the other is harmful.  Scientists are still looking into this.

So in conclusion, something needs to be done about our food system as a whole and what we allow in and on our children’s food. I congratulate Dr Oz for being brave enough to step out and say “let’s look at this”. It will take us as parents to echo these words in order to have a chance of changing our childrens’ food supply.  Together we can do it!

What is Your Fridge Telling You?

Recently I went without power because of the hurricane and had to throw out all the food in my refrigerator. As I started to restock it I noticed something. It felt really good to look into my fridge and not see it over packed with food. It gave me a sense of calmness and a bit of a thrill to actually see what I had to work with for dinner.

I also noticed that my life in the past two years reflected what was in my refrigerator. When I was working and taking care of the kids and didn’t feel overwhelmed I was able to plan meals and by the end of the week I could actually see that most of the food in my fridge was used up. I didn’t have tons of produce left over which would eventually rot. Then I got super buy launching a business and I didn’t see the bottom of my fridge for several years.

Shopping for me when I am overwhelmed and too busy looks like this: “I need to stock up on sunflower seed butter and other items at Trader Joes because I don’t know when I’ll have the time to get back there”. When I would run to the local grocery store I would buy whatever I thought I could use to feed my family but with no specific menu plan and as a result I spent more than my budget allowed. Basically I was running on fear; fear I wouldn’t have time to get back to the store, fear 20 people might stop by and I needed to be prepared. Are you familiar with that syndrome? I am Irish Catholic and was brought up always to expect to feed an army at a moments notice and I have to say that they haven’t shown up yet.

Are you so busy and overwhelmed that you don’t have the time to plan meals? Take a look in your refrigerator. If you have tons of leftovers, rotting produce and over stocked shelves I bet your life is super busy; maybe too busy. Perhaps your fridge is telling you to take a moment and breath; to cut back on some of the craziness in life and get to a place where planning dinner and shopping is not riddled with anxiety and stress but joy. It is possible; well maybe not so much joy if you don’t like to cook but perhaps less stressful for you.

Perhaps fear of your finances is what drives you most. Most of us are concerned about money and cost is a leading factor in what we buy. If your fridge has limited or no fresh fruits and vegetables at all than it is saying something different; it is saying that you lack vibrancy in your family’s diet and perhaps there is limited energy in your lives. I was once told by an ancient Asian medicine man that “life gives life”. Food that comes out of the ground unprocessed like green leafy foods support life, food that only comes out of boxes and cans is dead food and can not sustain a healthy life.

I would like to challenge myself and you to stop shopping out of fear? Fear of not getting back to the store, fear of not having enough money to pay for groceries, fear of a hurricane, tornado, flood or other natural or man made (terrorist) disaster? We live in a fear based society and any time we turn on the news we are reminded of all there is to be afraid of. How about you join me in trusting; trusting that it will all get done, that you will have time to get back to the store and the resources to buy what you need. My goal is to see the bottom of my fridge at the end of each week and not to overstock and over-buy just because something might happen. Let me know how it goes.

It is What You Choose Now That Matters Most

This July was my 18th anniversary of surviving non-Hodgkins Lymphoma.  Some may say it is a miracle seeing that I was given two weeks to live in my twenties but I think it was more than that.  I believe I survived because of the choices that I made after the diagnosis.  I never believed in the death sentence, instead I looked for the message that the cancer brought me.  So was my surviving a miracle? You bet, but if I didn’t step up to the plate as well and make different choices for myself, I don’t believe I would be here today.

That is the reason I have spent the last two decades teaching and coaching about making healthy choices.  I truly believe that the decisions that we make every day, the small and large ones, add up to us going down a path of health or disease.  It breaks my heart to see how this generation of kids is sprinting down the path of diabetes, heart disease, cancer, obesity and a shortened life span.

I spoke to a group of girl scouts last spring and there was an eight year old girl that caught my attention.  She was so afraid of getting cancer like her grandparent that she asked my exactly what she should and shouldn’t eat.  I didn’t want her to approach food fearfully so I called her mom and left a message. She never called back and I don’t think it was because she didn’t have her child’s best interest at heart. I came to find out that her mother has a very busy job and feeds her daughter pizza and baked chocolate chip cookies almost every night for dinner.  I don’t think the mom wanted to hear what I had to say.

In my experience, many busy parents think the junk and processed food that they feed their kids either won’t hurt their child’s health because they ate it growing up and they are fine, or else they really just don’t want to think about it too much because it adds up to one more thing to do and they already have an overloaded plate. I created the Build Healthy Kids program for exactly this type of busy parent. I spent three years researching and creating a plan that would not overwhelm parents or their children.  All a family has to do is to focus on making one change a month and by years end they will be living a healthy lifestyle; one that promotes health. All it takes is to make one choice at a time.

Is your child’s lunch cold or hot enough? Startling facts you need to know!

unhealthy lunch box


Did you ever wonder if the lunches that you pack for your kids for school or daycare are keeping their food cold or hot enough?  Well researchers at the University of Texas did. They analyzed 705 lunches of preschoolers to make sure that they were kept in the safety zone: below 40° F for food and beverages that you want to keep cold or above 140° F degrees for hot items. When food is kept at a temperature between 40° F and 140° F bacteria can grow and your child can potentially develop a food borne illness which can be serious.

What did the study find? It was shocking: only 1.6% of the food items that they measured were in the safety zone and that was 1 ½ before lunch time even occurred. These findings bring to light the importance of not only eating food that is healthy in terms of it’s nutritional value but also in terms of how safe it is too.  Cooking meat thoroughly, reducing the chance of cross contamination and following practices that keep food cold or hot enough are all very important practices to follow. In this study almost 40% of the lunches had no ice packs in them.

You do not need to stop packing your child’s lunches as long as you follow some safe practices for handling and storing food. Below are some tips for packing healthy lunches:

1. Start with a clean working surface at home so that you don’t transfer bacteria on a cutting board or counter to your child’s food. Keep pets off your counters!
2. Begin with cold ingredients as they will keep food in the lunch box cooler for longer; refrigerate juice boxes, milk boxes and fruits and veggies before putting them in your child’s lunch box.
3. For hot items, add boiling water to your child thermos to get it very hot before adding heated soup or heated leftovers.
4. Make sure to include at least one ice pack in your child’s lunch that is thick enough to last the amount of time necessary between leaving the house and eating their lunch.
5. When you include food that is susceptible to bacterial growth, make extra sure that you put that ice pack right up against it or even sandwich the following susceptible items between two ice packs. These foods need to be kept cold (do not leave at room temperature for more than 2 hours):

    • Meat, poultry, fish, eggs
    • Anything with mayonnaise in or on it
    • Peeled or cut fruits and vegetables
    • Dairy products like milk, cheese, and yogurt
    • Open container of applesauce or pudding

6. Use a top quality thermos, ice pack and lunch container to keep food hot or cold and don’t put hot and cold items in the same lunch box.

7. Pack non-perishable items for later use or if you are not sure how well your child’s lunch box holds up. The following foods do not need refrigeration

    • Prepackaged fruit cups
    • Dried fruit (raisins)
    • Dried cereal or crackers
    • Shelf stable, single serving milk or milk alternatives (soy or rice milk)
    • Nuts and seeds (if no allergies are present), nut butters and sunflower seed butter
    • Fruit in its original packaging: bananas, oranges, grapes, cherries, cherry tomatoes

8. Rinse and dry all fruits and vegetables before packing with water.

I am concerned that many families will take the results of this study and eliminate vegetables for non perishable items in their child’s diet.  This does not need to happen as long as you are careful when packing your child’s lunch and you use a quality lunchbox/bag and ice packs. Follow the safety tips above and pack several ice packs to make sure that you have all the essential elements to a healthy lunch: whole grain and protein, a fruit and a vegetable and a good source of calcium.

June – Get Your Calcium Now!

  • Think of a bone as a bank. Children can only deposit calcium into their bank to make strong bones until they reach 20 years of age. After that, only withdrawals can occur.
  • Drinking soda or not getting enough calcium in the diet causes calcium to be removed from your child’s bones.
  • The majority of children ages 9-18 do not get enough calcium. Make sure your child gets 2 to 3 servings of high calcium foods every day (e.g. low fat milk products, green leafy vegetables).

May is Exercise Month

  • Everyone needs to exercise 60 minutes a day, parents included.
  • Its OK to break up exercise into 20 or 30 minutes segments.
  • Have your child run and play after a long day at school before doing their homework.