Making Healthier Meal Choices

Child eating salad


In their offices at universities across the country, the nation's best nutrition researchers spend months conducting the experiments and tabulating the data that you hear summarized in 15 seconds on the evening news: How much stronger will an extra glass of milk a day make a child's bones? Does fish boost brainpower in babies? What are the health benefits of whole grains? But their real challenge doesn't begin until they go home. Just like your kids, many of their sons and daughters prefer soda to milk, white bread to whole wheat, and potato chips to carrot sticks. The researchers' one advantage: As part of their job, they can come up with clever ways to help kids (including their own) make healthier choices. From a surefire strategy to slip whole grains into your child's breakfast, lunch, and dinner to the fish almost every kid will love, four leading nutrition experts share the secrets of their successful homework. Take notes!

Food for Thought

When his daughter Rebecca was born 13 years ago, David Katz, M.D., associate clinical professor of public health and medicine at Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, CT, became interested in how omega-3 fatty acids — found in nuts, fish, and flaxseed — may help bolster brain function in children. "The research looked promising, but there wasn't enough of it to draw conclusions," he says. "Still, I asked my wife, Catherine, to eat a little more fish so her breast milk would be especially rich in these fatty acids."

As his family grew (the Katzes have five children, ranging from 2 to 13 years old), so did the number of studies on omega-3s. By the time Dr. Katz started working on his recently published textbook, Nutrition in Clinical Practice, all the proof he needed was there. "After I'd written 41 chapters, the evidence was just overwhelming," he says. "Omega-3 fatty acids are brain food for kids."

The Katzes made a plan so their children would get one kid-size serving of omega-3s a day — that's 2 1/2 ounces of fish, a tablespoon of flaxseed or flaxseed oil, or 1/2 ounce of nuts. "One serving is plenty to reap the benefits," Dr. Katz says.

Twice a week, Catherine pan broils or grills seafood. "The kids don't put up a fuss because we started giving them talapia, a mild whitefish, when they were little — around their first birthday," she says. "I serve it with a cold marinade of lemon juice, olive oil, capers, and fresh chives." (The American Academy of Pediatrics advises waiting until your child turns 1 before serving fish. Delay it until age 3 if you have a family history of food allergies.)

When they're not having fish for dinner, the Katzes make sure their kids eat flaxseed or flaxseed oil, which the family buys at a health food store. The kids sprinkle the seeds on their cereal or toss their salads in a dressing made from a 50-50 mixture of flaxseed oil and balsamic vinegar. On Friday, Catherine bakes the seeds in desserts. "That's our family night. We munch on desserts as we watch a video," says Dr. Katz. "It's the best."

Making Milk Mandatory

Shortly after she gave birth to her first child, Robin, now 6, Dorothy Teegarden, Ph.D., associate professor of foods and nutrition at Purdue University in West Lafayette, IN, finished a study showing that kids who drink three cups of milk daily have a peak bone mass 4% to 6% higher than children who drink just one glass. "That teeny bit of extra bone density reduces their risk of developing osteoporosis later in life by 40%," she marvels. But is milk-drinking as big a deal for boys as for girls? "No doubt," she says. "Osteoporosis isn't only a woman's disease anymore. Men are living longer and losing bone just like women."

After her second son, Heron, 4, was born, Dr. Teegarden found another reason kids need milk: It may help fight obesity. In a two-year study, young women getting 1,000 mg of calcium daily (the equivalent of 3 1/2 glasses of milk) lost six pounds of body fat compared to women on low-calcium diets, probably because being deficient in the mineral causes hormonal changes that lead to fat storage. "There is new evidence to show the same effect in kids," she says.

At home, the family drinks milk with almost every meal. Dr. Teegarden packs Heron and Robin milk and a box of 100% fruit juice in their school lunches. They drink soda only two or three times a year, as a treat. "Many parents bend too much," she says. "My kids ask for soda, and I tell them it's not good for little boys. You have to make milk with meals a rule — and lead by example."

Cultivating a Taste for Whole Grains

In the last decade, Joanne Slavin, Ph.D., a professor of food science and nutrition at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul, has pinpointed the health benefits of whole grains: One serving daily lowers the risk of heart disease and diabetes by 30% to 36%; three servings a day drop the chance of stroke by 36%.

So at home, she aims to give her children, Amy, 15, Sarah, 13, and Andy, 9, one to three servings daily. "Many parents believe that their children should eat only whole grains, but that's not necessary," she explains. "Eating more than three servings daily doesn't seem to bolster the benefits."

The first serving is a snap: one cup of whole-grain cereal such as Cheerios, Raisin Bran, Wheaties, or oatmeal. Then she stocks the kitchen with whole-grain snacks like popcorn and low-fat crackers such as Ak-Mak or Ry-Krisp.

At dinner, Dr. Slavin camouflages whole-wheat pasta in macaroni and cheese and makes a brown rice and lentil casserole from a recipe passed on to her by the kids' Indian babysitter. Still, Dr. Slavin admits, when she gives her kids grilled cheese on whole-wheat bread, they're less than thrilled. "I can't say they'd freely choose whole grains all the time on their own," she says. "I just keep trying, and I don't expect perfection."

Picking Produce for Picky Eaters

In 1993, Colleen Doyle, R.D., national director of nutrition and physical activity for the American Cancer Society in Atlanta, began studying a problem faced by almost every parent — how to get kids to eat more produce. Now she uses her findings with her sons, Patrick, 6, and Jackson, 2.

"Jackson eats everything, but Patrick is picky," she says. Among the ways she gets Patrick to eat five servings of produce a day: taking him to the supermarket to choose his own apples and smell the cantaloupe and letting him help out in the kitchen by tearing lettuce. On the weekends, Doyle makes a face on a plate with Roma tomato slices for eyes, noodles for hair, lettuce for a beard, sliced carrots for eyes, string cheese for a nose, and a pepper strip for a mouth. "Okay, so all Patrick did was lick the red pepper strip," admits Doyle. "But it's a start."


Valentine\’s Day Pancakes

Kids will flip over these pancakes because they're heart-shaped. But you'll love how the whole grains, canola oil, and fruit benefit your children's hearts.


6 pancakes

Prep Time:

10 minutes

Cooking Time:

10 minutes



Step 1: In large bowl, combine flour, oats, and baking powder; mix well. In medium bowl, combine milk, egg, and oil; blend well. Add to dry ingredients all at once; stir just until dry ingredients are moistened.

Step 2: Coat skillet with spray, and heat to medium high. For each pancake, spoon 1/4 cup of batter into skillet, forming heart shape. Flip when batter bubbles and edges begin to set. Top with berries and sugar.

Nutritional Facts:

Each pancake: 104 calories, 4 g protein, 16 g carbohydrate, 3 g fat (1 g saturated), 1 g fiber, 27 mg cholesterol, 105 mg calcium, 1 mg iron, 23 mg sodium.

Better-for-You Biscotti


40 cookies

Prep Time:

20-30 minutes

Cooking Time:

45 minutes



preheat oven to 325?F.

Step 1: Place nuts in a pan or on a baking sheet, and toast for 5 minutes. Allow to cool. Reserve 1/4 cup of each kind of nut. Meanwhile, process flaxseed in a coffee grinder for 3 seconds.

Step 2: In a mixer, combine eggs, sugar, and vanilla for about 20 seconds. Add flour and baking soda; beat until dough forms. Stir in nuts.

Step 3: With floured hands, form dough into 3 flattish logs, about 10" long and 2" wide. Place logs on an ungreased baking sheet, and bake for 20 minutes. Remove from oven, and cool for 10 minutes.

Step 4: Reduce heat to 275°F. On a cutting board, using a serrated knife, cut the logs diagonally into 3/4"-thick slices. Place the slices on a baking sheet, and cook 10 minutes more. Turn off heat, and leave the biscotti to crisp in oven for 15 minutes. Remove from oven, and allow to cool completely.

Step 5: Place chocolate in microwave-proof bowl, and heat on power 8 until melted. Stir in orange extract. Using a baker's brush, paint half of each biscotti with chocolate, and sprinkle with the reserved nuts and flaxseed. Allow chocolate to harden before storing.

Nutritional Facts:

Each cookie: 121 calories, 3 g protein, 14 g carbohydrate, 7 g fat (2 g saturated), 1 g fiber, 5 mg cholesterol, 23 mg calcium, 1 mg iron, 24 mg sodium.

Cheesy Casserole

This whole-grain dish boasts two fiber-rich foods: lentils and brown rice.



Prep Time:

5 minutes

Cooking Time:

1 hour



Step 1: Melt butter in 4-quart saucepan over medium heat. Sauté onion until soft. Stir in lentils, rice, broth, and water. Boil; reduce heat to low. Cook 50 minutes. Put in serving dish; top with cheese and croutons.

Nutritional Facts:

Each serving: 264 calories, 14 g protein, 34 g carbohydrate, 8 g fat (3 g saturated), 4 g fiber, 12 mg cholesterol, 155 mg calcium, 3 mg iron, 201 mg sodium.

Granola Fruit Crisp

This dessert is rich in brain-boasting omega-3 fatty acids!



Prep Time:

20 minutes

Cooking Time:

35 minutes



Heat oven to 350?F.

Step 1: Place granola and nuts on a pan or baking sheet and toast for 5 minutes. Meanwhile, grind flax seeds in a coffee grinder for 3 seconds.

Step 2: In a food processor, combine granola, nuts, flax, oat flour, and brown sugar. Grind for 20 to 30 seconds, until well incorporated. Add apple butter and egg whites and grind briefly again.

tep 3: Place fruit in a baking dish and dot with jam. Pour water over fruit and coat with granola mixture. Cover loosely with foil and bake for about 20 minutes; uncover and bake an additional 15 minutes. Serve warm.

Nutritional Facts:

Each serving: 304 calories, 6 g protein, 56 g carbohydrate, 9 g fat (1 g saturated), 6 g fiber, 0 mg cholesterol, 44 mg calcium, 3 mg iron, 65 mg sodium.

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Copyright © 2002. Reprinted with permission from the February 2002 issue of Child magazine.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.



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