Today we’re talking about food for kids. Some years ago a friend from medical school, Julie Kardos, joined forces with another pediatrician, Naline Lai, to launch an award-winning blog for parents called “Two Peds in a Pod.” All three of us have serious concerns about the food-like products that are marketed to young ones. I had mentioned to them that when my adult patients used to show up with children in tow, I would often see the little ones’ rounded bellies shrink to normal size as their families began to purchase, prepare, and eat more nourishing food. When Dr. Julie heard that, she said “The adults you treat are the ones packing the lunches of the kids that I treat.” Right.
When I asked which products bother her most, she mentioned “Gerber-Graduates Sweet-Potato Puffs,” a snack designed [yes, designed is the right word] for babies and toddlers. Made from sweet potato powder, this is junk food masquerading as FOOD. Its target audience is the young “graduates” of pureed baby food, ready for their first “manufactured-calorie” snacks. I looked at the on-line reviews, supposedly contributed by parents. They sound a lot more like they were written by advertising professionals. See what you think:
“Gerber Finger Foods Sweet Potato Veggie Puffs are a very good product from this trusted maker of baby foods.” “No staining artificial colors and dyes.” “Gerber Finger Foods Veggie Puffs are a very good product for introducing soon-to-be-toddlers to solid food.” “Melts in the mouth so you don’t have to worry about choking.” “Great on-the-go, put-in-the-diaper-bag snack!!”
“With Gerber Finger Foods, the worries melt away much like the food itself.“ No parent wrote this. “You just peel off the top and pour when you need some pieces of food, then replace the cap and wait for the next feeding opportunity.” Makes it seem like feeding time at the zoo.
“Gerber sells this product in a cylindrical container that is a little narrower at the top to make it easy to grip.” This package was designed to hand to cranky children so they can finish the entire container. “He would eat them all day long if I let him.” This is a red flag which indicates that the product is not nutritious and does not satisfy the child’s hunger.
What other snacks qualify as junk food? Chips of all kinds, as well as “100-calorie packs” of stripped carbohydrate (e.g., white flour, corn starch, sugar), whether in the form of crackers (®Ritz), cereal (®Chex), or cookies (®Chips Ahoy). And “cheese” crackers.
Beware of juice. Juice is good for rapidly spiking blood sugar when a patient’s blood sugars are too low. It’s a concentrated sugar-delivery system. Much better to teach children to drink water when they are thirsty, and to snack on fresh fruit when they are hungry. Milk is good for when the kids are hungry and thirsty!
So what should go in our children’s lunch bags? Key to teaching children to eat real food is to provide it to them. My great-grandparents didn’t eat potato chips, corn chips, sun chips, or moon chips; they ate a slice of whole-grain rye bread with a smear of butter or cream cheese. They didn’t eat fruit roll-ups or fruity pebbles; they ate apricots, peaches, plums, and grapes — fresh or dried. Depending on your family, you might choose a slice of Mexican white cheese (queso blanco), or a cube of cheddar cheese, or a wedge of brie. Sunflower seeds, dried apples, roasted almonds. Peanut butter or almond butter. A small container of plain yogurt with fruit. Slices of cucumbers, pickles, or peppers. These are great choices for snacks and meals. My mom brags that she fed me slices of Swiss cheese when I was a hungry toddler out for a stroll with my baby brother. Maybe that’s how I ended up where I am today.
When my children were toddlers, I gave them tiny cubes of frozen tofu to grasp and eat. I packed school lunches with variations on this theme:1) a wrap or sandwich made with whole-grain bread, 2) a container of fruit (usually apple slices, orange slices, kiwi slices, berries, or slices of pear), and 3) a small bag of homemade trail mix (usually nuts + raisins). The sandwich might be turkey with mayo and lettuce; or sliced Jarlsberg cheese with tomato and cream cheese; or tuna with celery; or peanut butter, with or without thin slices of banana. On Fridays I often included a treat, like dark chocolate chips.
Homemade trail mix can be simple or involved. You can make it with any combination of nuts, seeds, and/or dried fruit, plus dark chocolate if you like. Remember that dark chocolate isn’t candy, it’s nourishing. Dried apple slices, apricots, kiwi or banana chips, raisins, and currants are nutritious and delicious, and so are pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds, especially in homes with nut allergies. Fill and secure baggies with ¼ cup servings, and refrigerate them in a closed container until it’s time to make more. Include rolled oats, too, if you’d like.
Just one more thing. The best way to get kids interested in real food is to involve them in its preparation. That might mean smearing their own peanut butter on celery sticks before popping them into the bag, or eating the very same veggies they helped select and carry from the weekly farmer’s market. Kids are a lot more likely to eat the berries in their lunch bag if they picked them themselves. There’s a much greater chance they’ll eat kohlrabi if they helped you peel it, slice it, or squeeze a fresh lemon over it. That’s key to teaching kids how to love real, nourishing food.