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Harvard Commentaries
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Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

Food for Thought Food for Thought

Healthy Eating, Healthy Kids

October 23, 2014

By Natalie Egan, B.S., M.S.
Brigham and Women's Hospital

Think of your child's favorite food. Now ask yourself: Does this food contribute positively to your child's health or weight? While any food can fit into a healthy lifestyle, not all foods contribute positively to health.

Today's fast-paced society leaves little time for preparing meals and snacks. Busy parents are buying more processed and convenience foods that are high in calories, low in nutrients and easy for children to prepare (or open). Thirty percent of meals are eaten outside the home, and they frequently consist of fast foods made with bad fats and few vegetables.

Restrictive diets seem like an obvious solution, but they are likely to fail, and they encourage unhealthy, lifelong eating habits. A better solution for all is to combine healthy eating and physical activity. Follow these guidelines to improve your diet:

  • Choose the right fat — Fat is one of the most misunderstood nutrients. Choosing the right fat is crucial — think healthy fat (not low fat) for growing kids.
  • Eat regular meals and snacks
  • Eat more vegetables
  • Eat more fiber
  • Choose fewer processed foods and beverages loaded with sugar

Following is a quick guide to help you improve your family's eating behaviors with the goal lifelong health and decreased risks of obesity, heart disease and diabetes. To improve eating behaviors, start by improving the environment.

Shop Smart

Read labels and be aware of hidden "extras."

  • Find acceptable products with healthy fat listed in the ingredients. Look for canola, olive or other vegetable oil instead of partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.
  • Watch out for snacks with excessive sugar, such as drinkable yogurts, juice boxes, fruit roll ups and sweetened dry cereal. Try whole or dried fruit for natural sweetness.
  • Bring home fewer high-calorie snacks to decrease temptation.
  • Shop with your children and let them make their own healthy choices.

Make it Healthy

  • Use extra virgin olive oil or canola oil when cooking, trans-fat-free tub spreads for baking.
  • Decrease the saturated fat in recipes with some healthier substitutions, such as:
    • Evaporated skim milk instead of heavy cream
    • Non-fat sour cream instead of regular
    • Nuts instead of coconut
    • A half-cup of egg substitute instead of four whole eggs.
  • Serve smaller amounts of high-fat foods instead of cutting them out completely
  • Avoid all trans fats.

Too Fast for Breakfast?

Breakfast should be a non-negotiable meal. Children do better in school when they are well nourished, and skipping breakfast can lead to excessive hunger and overeating at the next meal. To make breakfast more interesting as well as healthful consider these ideas:

  • Try nontraditional foods for breakfast, such as leftovers from dinner.
  • Serve oatmeal or other high-fiber cereal in the morning instead of a sweetened dry cereal.
  • Blend a smoothie for an "on the run" breakfast. (Blend 1 cup of nonfat vanilla yogurt, 1 cup of fresh fruit and ¼ cup of skim or soy milk.)
  • Make sure breakfast includes some protein — egg, milk, plain yogurt, peanut butter or lean meat.

More Vegetables, Fruits and Fiber

Whole vegetables, fruits and grains provide more vitamins, minerals anti-oxidants and fiber than their processed counterparts (products found in boxes, or prepared and frozen). Fiber gives a feeling of fullness after eating and has been associated with decreased risk of several chronic diseases.

  • Cut up fruits and vegetables for snacks with natural peanut butter or olive/canola oil-based salad dressing.
  • Try serving a variety of fruits and vegetables throughout the day. Different colors equal different vitamins and minerals.
  • Add vegetables to an omelet.
  • Choose whole fruits instead of juices (juices provide lots of sugar and no fiber).
  • Non-sulfur-treated dried fruit, nuts and whole-grain cereal is a healthy snack.
  • Use oat-bran or 100 percent whole-wheat bread or a whole-wheat pizza crust.
  • Whole-wheat pasta is now widely available in supermarkets. Try a pasta-vegetable salad.
  • Add beans or nuts to a salad; choose soups with dried beans, peas or lentils.

Mix and Match a Healthy Snack

Mix and Match a Healthy Snack!
Fruit/Vegetable Spread Toppings
Apple Peanut butter Raisins
Celery Almond butter Ground flax seed
Red pepper Hummus Sunflower seeds
Tomato Low-fat cottage cheese Chopped nuts
Frozen banana Honey Sesame seeds
Kiwi Plain yogurt Wheat germ

Apple Smiles

  1. Slice an apple.
  2. Spread with natural peanut butter between two slices of apple.
  3. Put some pieces of puffed rice between the two "lips" for teeth.

Think About the Drink

It's easy to limit sodas and give the green light to juice because it's "healthier" but juice can be a "fraud." Few juices are good sources of vitamin C, and many have some form of sugar added. Instead:

  • Drink low-fat milk or water with meals.
  • Dilute 2 to 3 ounces of juice with sparkling or mineral water for a "juice fizz."
  • Add a twist of lemon or lime to water.

Build and Bag it Healthy

The best way to help your child eat healthy is to bring healthy foods from home. Pack or choose a healthy school lunch with your child — they are more likely to try something new that they have helped prepare.

Bag and Build It Healthy! 
Protein source Accents Accessories
Tuna or egg salad Mayonnaise Celery sticks
Chopped chicken Mustard Carrot sticks
Turkey Natural cranberry sauce Lettuce and tomato
Low-fat cheese Trans fat-free margarine Tomatoes (try grilling!)
Fat-free ham Mustard Pickles
Natural peanut butter Whole-wheat bagel Sliced apples
Lean roast beef BBQ sauce Sliced peppers
Hummus Whole-wheat pita Sliced cucumbers
Part-skim mozzarella Oat-bran English muffin Tomato sauce

Move Toward Healthier Weights

Our children are becoming more and more sedentary. Exercise helps avoid excessive weight gain and contributes to a strong, healthy heart. And it also can help your child avoid snacking out of boredom. Sometimes it's easier to change exercise habits than eating habits.

  • Start with easy exercise such as walking, biking and swimming; team activities also can provide exercise while being more fun to kids who like to be in a group.
  • Exercise as a family! If children see adults exercise, they will too.
  • Rather than watching television, take a family walk after dinner.

Parents: Rate Your Own Plate

The best way for your child to develop healthy eating habits is to be a role model by developing healthy eating and exercise habits yourself. In addition:

  • Don't single your child out! Have the whole family make heart-healthy changes.
  • Respect your child's appetite; he or she doesn't need to finish every meal.
  • Do not provide food as a source of comfort or reward.
  • Consider home baked treats made with healthy fats.
  • Introduce new foods with some old favorites, but serve the new food at the beginning of the meal when everyone is hungrier.
  • Use positive feedback when your child tries a new food; refusing to eat may be a way of getting attention.
  • Keep healthy snacks on hand and available throughout the day to meet hunger needs.

Finally, remember that healthy habits started in childhood are more likely to be followed throughout life.

Natalie Egan is a senior nutritionist at Brigham and Women's Hospital. She received her Bachelor of Science at Simmons College and her Master of Science in nutrition at Massachusetts General Hospital Institute of Health Professions. She completed her dietetic internship at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. She is an adjunct faculty member at Emmanuel College and Simmons College.

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