Friday, September 29, 2006

Kids and food

Sheryl at Paper Napkin followed up on my post from yesterday where I talked about the childhood obesity epidemic.

Sheryl asks the Internet in general: How often do you let your kids eat candy, dessert or sugared cereal? Do you take them to McDonald's, and let them eat chips? How often do you let them drink soda? Do you let them snack in between meals? How much TV do you let them watch? Do you encourage them to exercise a certain period each day? Do you make sure they're involved in sports? How much time do let them spend on the computer or in front of the TV? My inquiring mind wants to know.

Since my comment to her post got way, way too long, I figured it would be better to do a post of my own.

I had an eating disorder as a teenager/20-something. I'm very concerned about NOT passing on that legacy to the girls so we try hard not to make food a bad issue. A recent article in the WSJ talked about the influence mothers have on their children's attitudes towards food and weight. As if I needed more pressure . . .

We also have another issue - my husband is diabetic. Not because he's overweight - it's a genetic issue because his mother also had diabetes. That means that our children are significantly predisposed to diabetes later in life. We're very concerned about helping them be healthy children who grow into healthy adults. We have extra reason to limit the amount of sugar and carbs the kids eat.

We're big proponents of moderation. We figure that if we're too strict, the kids are more likely to rebel when they're away from us or become "sneak" eaters. If they eat healthy foods most of the time and get plenty of exercise, eating dessert a few times a week is perfectly ok.

They get mid-morning snacks at school and an afternoon snack (mostly because we generally don't eat dinner until after 6:30 p.m.) Snacks are yogurt, fruit, goldfish crackers, baby carrots with dip, a small bowl of cheerios, Fig Newtons, pretzels, small granola bars or Nutrigrain bars - apples with peanut butter is a big fave. For lunch my six-year old has been eating two slices of sandwich meat (no bread) with Triscuit crackers, baby carrots and fruit. My 8 year old usually has 1/2 of a sandwich with carrots and fruit.

Studies have shown that eating several small "meals" a day is better than eating three big meals. They have a good breakfast, a small lunch, two small snacks and a good dinner. Sometimes they're hungry before bed and we'll give them some fruit or cheese.

For breakfast we rotate oatmeal (the real kind, not the sugary instant kind), cream of wheat, eggs, cereal and yogurt or cottage cheese with fruit. We almost always have toast with cream cheese or peanut butter and we usually have sausages or bacon. On Sundays, my husband makes us the best pancakes in the world. (Seriously. They're the best. Ever since he started making them, I won't ever order pancakes when we're eating out because they simply pale by comparison to his homemade.)

We don't have dessert every night - maybe a couple times a week or on special occasions. (Like last night - Cold Stone Creamery had free ice cream. Free ice cream is always a special occasion.) When we have dessert, we have relatively small portions. And certain fruits count as dessert - like mango or pineapple - because they're special. My husband sometimes makes fruit smoothies (that we call "fruit soup"). When they get candy in goody bags or on Easter or Halloween, we put some of it away in bags that we keep on top of the fridge. Sometimes dessert is one thing from those bags - often it's a piece of chocolate or a lolly-pop. That's the kind of stuff that some people give their kids every day. But for our kids, it's a treat so they don't expect to have it every day. There's no sense of entitlement to sugar in our house.

We never have soda at home. Sometimes, at birthday parties or on airplanes, the kids get a little bit of Sprite as a treat - that happens maybe twice a year. Otherwise, no soda. This article talks about one of the studies showing how bad soda is for kids. Studies have also shown that drinking diet sodas can increase cravings for calories - apparently the sweet taste of the soda, unaccompanied by calories, triggers a craving. So, basically, any soda is bad for you. (Which stinks because I used to love Diet Coke). Juice is mostly sugar water and milk isn't necessarily good for you if you get sufficient calcium elsewhere. We drink water, almost exclusively.

Dinner is sometimes tough - I'm no June Cleaver and although my husband is a good cook, it's hard to find the time. We do pasta and meat sauce (ground turkey instead of beef), pork chops or ribs, soup, Hamburger Helper, Boboli pizza, roasted chicken from the grocery store, ground turkey with beans, mac n' cheese with chicken nuggets or Tombstone pizza (those last two are kind of last resort dinners when there's no time or nothing in the fridge). In the winter we make chili in the crock pot and eat leftovers for a few days. It's not gourmet stuff but it's fairly healthy and leaves us with time to sit at the table and talk to the kids.

I think the availability of Snack Well foods contributes to America's obesity epidemic - when SnackWell fat-free foods were introduced, Americans got the idea that so long as something was fat-free, it could be eaten with out limit. Now the craze is low-carb diets. Anything low-carb has to be good for you - right? An Australian friend once said to me, "Americans are weird about food. They eat all this horrible "diet" food and avoid the good stuff but they're still fat. Why don't Americans just eat the good stuff but eat less of it?"

As Sheryl points out, though, it's hard to know how much of the "good" stuff (as in, not so healthy but really tasty) is too much. With Supersized meals and outrageously large restaurant portions, Americans don't have a sense of appropriate portion sizing. I'm as guilty of that as anyone - I have a tendency to put too much food on the kids' plates (and my own!). If we're hungry, we'll eat so fast that our brains don't get the message from our stomachs that we're full before it's too late. We'll eat all the food on our plates and then realize we ate too much. Do that enough and you'll adjust to bigger portion sizes. My husband has helped me with this issue by suggesting that I visualize the size of their tummies and look at the food on the plate - the food on the plate taken as a whole shouldn't be a whole lot bigger than their tummies. We also try to remind each other not to eat fast.

We make sure that both girls have at least one after school activity that's physical, like gymnastics. On occasion we exercise as a family - this summer my husband took the girls to the park a lot to practice hitting and throwing a baseball, kicking a soccer ball, tennis and running. Living in the city, it's a little more difficult to get them outside play time because they can't just run out the back door and play with the neighbors like we did when we were young. You have to plan for it and an adult has to be around, which can be tough. We have a pool in our building and go swimming a lot.

TV and computer time varies - so long as they're getting enough exercise and spending time doing other things - practicing the piano, homework, etc. - then they can watch TV when they want to. If we think they're watching too much, we'll tell them to turn it off and go play with something. And they do. It just isn't really an issue most of the time. Also, our punishment of choice is to take away TV and computer time (and sugar) so there are times when they don't get to watch at all, which is just as well.

So, Sheryl, I don't know if this helps at all. There's no magic formula, unfortunately. As I said above, the bottom line is moderation. Lots of the healthy foods with a small amount of treats. Since my kids were toddlers, I've said to them "What's mommy and daddy's most important job?" And they learned to answer, "To keep me safe and healthy and to teach me stuff." After that, they don't fight us when we say "No dessert tonight, we had some yesterday." or "You've had enough mac n' cheese. How about some fruit?" Maybe someday they'll be using the same line with their kids!


dodo said...

we're guilty of the large portions/eating too fast thing. I think ever since I had my daughter I've been rushing. Either to eat before the food is cold, to eat before I have to get her ready to be somewhere, to shove a mouthful in here and there as I balanced her on my knee - trying to feed her and cut my own food etc. So now even though she's perfectly capable of sitting at the table for an hour or so for a sociable meal I find myself racing though it, not stopping to enjoy - especially if I've cooked it myself. I've lately been making a big effort to put my knife and fork down between mouthfuls, especially since I've realised I've been racing even when there are no children around, like with work colleagues.

AfricaBleu said...

Sounds like you've got it, babe. My kids do okay, for the most part -- though they DO occasionally have a pity-party when dessert is not on option (which is rarely is -- more for my sake than theirs -- if it's around, I'll eat it).

dodo said...

Just popped back to mention that she will not touch a potato in ANY form. and last night when asked what she wanted for dinner "baked beans, greenie beanies [french bean] and green olibs [olives]" was the response I got . . . so that's what she had. (that's all the major food groups, surely?)