Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Back to School- Helping Our Kids Make Smart Eating Choices a Lifelong Habit

It's that time of year again, when our young ones leave the nest and are out in the world on their own- for a awhile at least. I just dropped my daughter off at her first day of four year old preschool. She had her “All About Me” bag and lunch box in tow. The drop off went smoothly (she's too independent for her own good, that one), kiss and hug and she was off playing in the classroom without a backward glance. I walk away feeling proud and bit sad- my baby girl is growing up so fast! Four hours of making her own choices (for the most part at least) without parental influence, but with a whole bunch of peer influence. Yikes. I just hope I am giving her the tools to make good choices and feel confident in those choices. One area in particular that I want to influence, or shall I say, I still have some control over, is her eating habits- what goes in her lunchbox.

A few weeks ago, my daughter and I met up with a friend and her two children at Brookside Gardens and had a very nice picnic lunch. My friend and I were talking about packing school lunches- the challenges to ensuring our children are eating healthy and in an environmentally friendly way. The wholesome part of lunch I felt pretty on top of (though it's always nice to get new ideas); however, the earth-friendly part I learned could use a little work. After a few suggestions and some thorough research, I learned just how NOT on top of things I was. I was using a lot of Ziploc type bags to hold food, disposable plastic forks and spoons, and prepackaged food such as single serving applesauce and yogurt cups, juice boxes and so on. All these things just get thrown away. Sure they're convenient, but horrible for the environment, so I was beginning to realize. I even started paying more attention to the labels on the prepackaged "healthy" food items I was giving my daughter- they're not healthy at all (full of sugar and/or sodium!). Ugh. What to do.

My friend turned me on to this bento box lunch system that really has got me thinking about how important it is for parents to really work hard now (when kids are younger) to influence earthy-friendly food preferences. Smart, healthy food choices formed early in life often prevail into adulthood. More importantly, if we as parents are not making wholesome, earth-friendly food choices, our children will not be making those choices either. Children are the best mimickers whether we think they're paying attention or not- “do as I say, not as I do,” just doesn't cut it! As parents of school aged children we have the greatest influence over the food choices our children make. That is why we need to consider the type of eaters we are versus the type of eaters we want to be, and start to make the necessary changes in order to eat smarter sooner rather than later. If we change our own eating (and exercise) habits, we'll then change how our children eat, and the whole family will be healthier and happier. The eating habits that we will instill in our children now will likely follow them into adulthood- maybe even benefiting future generations! Raising children provides an excellent reason to change our own eating (and fitness) habits for the better. The sooner we educate ourselves, improve our eating (and exercise) habits, the better off the whole family will be. That is why I want to share what I have learned with you, to help your family make the transition to smart, earth-friendly, healthy eating; just as my family is making this transition.

Why go earth-friendly?

First, think about what you would see if you walked through your kids lunchroom, or you were sitting at your kids table at preschool during lunchtime. I bet you would see a lot of the following:

  • sandwiches sealed in disposable plastic bags
  • fruits and vegetables in plastic bags
  • chips, cookies, fruit bars, granola bars, cheese and fruit leathers in single-use packages
  • single-serving yogurts, applesauces, and puddings in disposable plastic containers
  • crackers, pretzels, chips, and other snack foods sealed in plastic bags
  • disposable juice boxes, juice pouches, soda cans, water bottles, and milk cartons
  • plastic forks and spoons
  • paper napkins
  • reusable lunchboxes and disposable paper and plastic bags
Now imagine what those trash cans look like after lunch. Did you get an image of overflowing trash cans? Wow, right. It has been estimated that on average a school-age child using a disposable lunch generates 67 pounds of waste per school year. That equates to 18,760 pounds of lunch waste for just one average-size elementary school. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation estimates that one student taking a disposable lunch to school everyday will create 45-90 pounds of garbage per year. Yikes.

Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. Anyone who was part of a recycling club in school is well aware of this mantra, but how many of us actually follow through with those sentiments into our parenting lives? I mean who has the time, right? Admittedly, prepackaged products are convenient, and I for one tend to get a bit lazy and cave into the convenience, but at what cost? The cost is not only to the environment, but to our pocket books.

First, let's tackle the cost to the environment. Landfills are full and overflowing. Incinerators pump contaminates into the air. Communities are battling over who will accept the nation's trash. We all enjoy the convenience that a disposable society offers, but few of us are willing to allow new landfills and incinerators to be built in our backyards- not that we should be willing. Where are new facilities built then? Further and further away from the towns that generate the waste. It is not only very expensive to ship waste (we pay for this in waste disposal fees and taxes), but think of all the fuel emissions that contaminate the air. Wouldn't it be better to reduce waste, fuel emissions and waste disposal fees and taxes, while generating and improving recycling and composting programs in our communities.

Second, prepackaged food is expensive. According to the Sierra Club, Americans pay more for food packaging than we pay farmers to grow our food! If we were to buy food in bulk or larger containers that we keep at home and recycle- that would not only be better for the environment, it won't break the bank! It's also worthy of note that prepackaged foods tend to be less nutritious as compared to unprocessed whole foods. In The Family Nutrition Book, Dr. William Sears, M.D. Says, “ After years of observation, I became convinced that the children who ate the healthiest foods were the healthiest kids. They get sick less often, had fewer discipline problems, and achieved better in school. They not only had healthier bodies, they had healthier minds.”

I just can't get the thought out of mind, that if I want to set a good example for my daughter by eating smart then I not only need to prepare healthy meals, but have an environmental awareness of where my food comes from and what happens to the waste that is generated by preparing and after consuming it. By reducing our reliance on disposable items, like packaging, we an help make a tremendous difference toward a more sustainable way of life, because the disposable model we currently follow, according to many experts, is not sustainable. For more information check out The Daily Green and The National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences.

Why go for unprocessed and healthy food?

Prepackaged, processed foods have not only had a negative impact on the environment, but on the waste lines of Americans, especially our children. With preservatives that prolong shelf life the food industry can ship their products further and make them available for longer to more people. When you add attractive packaging and clever advertising to the equation, it becomes possible for food manufacturers to influence our attitudes and understanding of nutrition and portion sizes. Consequently, we have become accustomed to taking in more calories than our bodies can use. This overcompensation of food, which is stored as fat in the body, has become one of the biggest health threats to our society. A 1994 National Institutes of Health study found that men and women between the ages of 25 and 30 were on average 10 pounds heavier than 25-30 year-olds in 1986. The conclusion of the study was that we were getting fatter because of our poor eating habits, the poor nutritional quality of the food we eat and a decrease in physical activity. They also found out that early eating habits do influence obesity later in life. It then becomes our responsibility as parents to make sure our children eat healthy and are active. Check out the  Dietary Guidelines for Americans for more information.

So how do you eat smart?

The American Academy of Pediatrics as well as the USDA provide some guidance. The quick breakdown is as follows:

Provide healthy food and limit fat intake. The suggestion for children over age 2 is limit fat intake to less than 30 percent of their total daily calories. For more information check out AHA- Dietary Recommendations for Healthy Children.

Prepare foods at home

Involve children in food selection and preparation

Offer water or low fat milk instead of juice, soda, juice drinks.

Encourage them to eat slowly and enjoy the ritual of eating. Try to make sure the family eats at least one meal a day together.

Make sure children get plenty of sleep

Provide a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables daily

Limit Processed Foods

  • buy five minute oatmeal instead of one-minute oatmeal. Cooking takes only four minutes longer, and the added nutrition is worth it.
  • Buy unprocessed rice instead of instant varieties.
  • Buy fresh fruits and vegetables instead of canned. Keep frozen on hand for emergencies.
  • Flavor your foods with individual herbs and spices instead of prepackaged flavorings, or for that matter grow your own herbs-its fun and educational!
  • Make your own salad dressings using quality ingredients such as 100% extra-virgin olive oil, lemon, vinegars, Dijon mustard or low-fat mayo.
  • Make soups from scratch instead of buying canned soup.
  • Buy whole grain, whole wheat breads containing at least two grams of fiber per slice.
  • Purchase unprocessed meats instead of processed lunch meats.
  • Stay away from chips!
  • Avoid prepackaged desserts.
Limit Sweets

  • refined sugar and sugar substitutes are considered “empty calories” for a reason- they provide no essential nutrients.
  • Limit products high in sugar including:
    • corn syrup
    • corn sweetner
    • fructose
    • mailtol
    • mannitol
    • sorbitol
    • maltose
    • xylitol
    • malt
    • maple sugar
    • maple syrup
    • molasses
    • rice syrup
    • honey
  • Substitute a very small amount of honey, maple syrup, molasses, applesauce or brown rice syrup for refined sugar. You do not need as much to achieve the same level of sweetness.
  • Read product labels, keeping in mind that ingredients are listed in order of greatest to least amount in product. It's very important to note that many food manufacturers include more than one sugar ingredient in a given product, so that sugar ingredient will jot appear as the first or second ingredient on the list.
  • Serve fruit for dessert or snacks instead of sugary sweets, or make low-fat,low sugar desserts at home instead of buying them.
  • When baking reduce the amount of sugar by one half or one-third or make a healthy substitute for the sugar.
  • Eliminate soft drinks, sports drinks and fruit drinks which are nothing more than cleverly marketed sugar water.
Limit Fats

  • non-hydrogenated fats & oils from plant sources such as nuts, seeds and olives are considered beneficial.
  • use extra-virgin olive oil, sesame oil, canola oil for cooking
  • use extra-virgin olive oil or walnut oil for cold dishes or salads.
  • fats & oils derived from from animal sources such as meats and dairy products should be limited and when used get the lean cuts of meat and low/non fat versions of dairy.
    Limit Sodium

    • Processed food are usually very high in sodium, which increases your risk of high blood pressure and stroke. Moreover, children who eat a limited amount of sodium are less likely to crave heavily salted foods later in life.
    • Home cooked meals are a sure way to limit the amount of sodium consumed as you are in control of how much salt goes in the meal.
    • Select foods that are labeled low or reduced sodium.
    • Limit salty foods such as chips, crackers, pretzels, salted nuts, soy sauce, pickles, some cereals, cheese, and processed lunch meats.
    • Read labels carefully especially when choosing processed foods.
      Eat a Variety of High Fiber Foods

      • Fiber helps reduce the risk of diabetes, constipation, and heart disease.
      • People who eat high fibers food are also less likely to over eat. Here's why. Dietary fiber: Essential for a healthy diet
      • Serve whole grains, vegetables and fruits. Introduce fiber to the diet gradually and be sure to increase fluid intake as you increase fiber intake in order to help digestion.
      • Serve whole, unpeeled fruits instead of juice. A good rule of thumb- any fruit starting with a “P” usually is high in fiber (I learned this from our pediatrician)
      • Buy dried fruits.
      • Choose whole grain bread, flour, rice, pasta, cereal, non instant oatmeal, add flax meal to to pancakes and other baked goods; use other similar products in place of refined white varieties.
      • Serve whole grain cereals instead of high-sugar varieties.
      • Provide at least 2-3 servings of dark green, red or orange vegetables daily.
      • Choose beans, nuts, and whole grains for protein instead of meat, eggs, and dairy products.
        Emphasize Plant Based Foods

        • According to the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, children between the ages of one and six only need 5 ounces of protein daily. This increases to 6 ounces for older children and 7 ounces for active teens. The average American adult consumes two to three times the recommended amount of protein, putting us at a higher risk for chronic diseases. The protein in our diet can be derived from a variety of sources; however, we rely too heavily on meat-based sources of protein which tend to be more fattening and less healthy. The American Heart Association recommends cutting down on the amount of food we eat that is derived from animals. Plus, eating meat is more harmful to the environment, than eating plant based foods.
        • Serve smaller portions of protein. This is not only good for the waistline, but for your bottom line, as meat is costly (especially the lean cuts)!
        • Choose a vegetarian option for 1-2 meals daily.
        • Cut out processed meats such as lunch meats and hot dogs.
        • Switch to organic and/or free range meats or “meatless” options.
        • Eat more fish (high in omega 3 fatty acids).
        • Eat less red meat and choose leaner cuts. Leaner cuts of red meat are better than chicken not only in taste, but “lean cuts of red meat are a great alternative to chicken because it does a better job at tissue repair. Leaner red meat is actually close to the fat content of chicken breast and offers a slightly better nutrient and mineral value,” according to Philip Goglia, PhD, metabolic nutritionist.
        • Lean cuts of red meat include: top round, eye of round, round tip, bottom round, flank steak, London Broil, round steak, filet mignon. 
        • Red meat to ovoid includes: Ribeye, T-bone, Porterhouse and prime rib which have a high saturation of fat.
            Drink plenty of water- good for the body, your skin and brain!
            • Encourage your children to drink water. Put it in their lunches (in reusable containers). Teach children to enjoy taste of water now so that they will enjoy it for the rest of their lives.
            • Order water at restaurants and save money.
              Transition to Eating Smart Now- the sooner you begin the more receptive your children will be, and the happier and healthier for it!

              Where to begin?

              • Teach children about recycling at home and have them help implement and be a part of maintaining the program.
              • Find age-appropriate books on nutrition and waste reduction at your local library and discuss these with your children.
              • Discuss where food come from with your children. You use a potato as an example- a baked one versus potato chips.
              • Create healthy meals together with your kids. Get them involved in the process, from menu selection,to making the grocery list, to preparing the meal and cleaning up after. The more they are invested in the project the more likely they will enjoy the process, learn from it and want to do it more! (This has definitively benefited my daughter.)
              • When eating out, encourage children to choose healthy meals that are not necessarily on the “kids menu,” which tend to offer high fat (fried), high sodium and fiberless choices.
                Shop smart!
                • Buy local, seasonal produce if you can from your grocery store, farmers market or become a member of CSA.
                • Read labels. Deciphering Food Labels
                • Buy nutritious, nonperishable food in bulk.
                • Buys foods that remember where they come from. For example, corn on the con over corn chips. Choose fresh fruit over fruit bars or fruit roll-ups.
                • Don't cave into your cravings or to those of your children. Stand firm. Try not to go grocery shopping hungry and provide yourself and children with a healthy snack before shopping.
                • Let your children be involved in choosing the food products. Give them healthy choices and let them pick.
                • Keep a shopping list in the kitchen to help keep track of what you need to buy.
                Stock your kitchen with healthy choices:
                • Replace refined grains with whole grain counterparts. Whole wheat, rye, oats, oat bran, barley, amaranth, buckwheat, quinoa, bulghar, wheat germ, and brown rice.
                • Update your cereal supply with whole grain, low sugar, low sodium varieties.
                • Substitute refined white paste with whole wheat, amaranth and pasta colored with vegetable juices.
                • Replace canned fruit with unsulphured bulk dried fruit.
                • Buy a variety of nuts and seeds in bulk.
                • Replace meat based products with tofu or soy products.
                • Make sure you have honey, 100% maple syrup, molasses on hand for use as sweeteners.
                • Use extra-virgin olive oil and other fruit or nut oils instead of vegetable oils; however canola oil is o.k. in moderation.
                • Avoid products with hydrogenated oils, commonly found in crackers, cookies and other processed foods.
                • Purchase quality sea salt, tamari, soy sauce instead of table salt. Sea salt contains all the race elements our bodies require without the chemical manipulation. Try using pepper more often.
                • Stock up on bulk dried legumes such as lentils, kidney beans, pinto beans.
                • Buy bulk almond butter or peanut butter instead of national brands which may contain added sugar, salt and hydrogenated oils.
                  Right about now you might be feeling a tad bit overwhelmed with information and realization. Don't worry. Making lifelong changes to habits that have been developed over many years takes time, patience and perseverance. By taking the initiative and “baby steps” as I like to say ( I got this from the movie comedy What About Bob- a funny, enjoyable family movie)  your family can start to implement two or three changes at a time. Once these changes take root in your family routine, take a moment to celebrate your accomplishment and start moving on to the next step of change. Eventually, new healthier habits will have formed and you won't even have to think about it anymore. It will become your families way of life with nary an afterthought, and your family will be healthier, happier and doing more to help preserve our precious planet.

                  Here's to our health and to the health of the planet!

                  Inspired by and much information from (verified by me) The Laptop Lunch User's Guide. I am not endorsing The Laptop lunch system; however, it is the Laptop Lunch bento system that I am using for my daughter. There are many ways you can provide a reusable, eco-friendly, portion appropriate lunches. You just need to do a little research. Be active. Be healthy. Be happy!

                  Other Sources: Mayo Clinic, American Academy of Pediatrics, USDA, American Heart Association

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