Welcome back, loving parents! In this piece I’ll be discussing some of the less obvious worst foods that you can feed your child. If you’ve not had a chance to read Parts one and two of this series, you can do so here: Part 1 Part 2
My daughter and I frequent a local playground most days of the week. I love these times when she can run free, play with other kids, get sand between her little toes and burn off some energy. Due to my traumatic experience as a child, I am, admittedly, a little overprotective of her. She knows that when I say “hand” I want her to grab my hand for help getting up stairs, climbing up to the slide, and walking on the sidewalk. I care for her so deeply and want to protect her from any possible harm.
This caring extends into the foods she eats. At the park, as much as I try to mind my own business, I can’t help but notice the food and drink being consumed in abundance by other children: Doritos, Coke, candy, Gatorade, McDonalds, Red Bull. Some parents might defend their choices by claiming “it’s all about moderation”, but is there such a thing as moderation when it comes to junk food and nutritionally deficient drinks? With such a huge amount of children suffering from obesity and other health concerns directly connected to nutrition, I’d venture to say that “moderation” doesn’t work.
I sympathize with parents who reach for a bag of chips or a soda; sometimes it’s the easiest, cheapest, and simplest option. But there are an infinite number of healthy options out there, and replacing junk food with real, nutrient-dense foods can reinforce a lifetime of healthy habits. Once you get the hang of preparing snacks and meals that are truly good for your kids, it’s like learning to go down that slide at the playground for the first time: exhilarating.
Below are my 10 not-so-obvious worst foods for children, with suggestions for how to replace them:
Whether fresh-squeezed or pre-packaged, juice is loaded with sugar and empty calories. One glass of orange juice contains the equivalent amount of sugar as four Oreo cookies or an entire can of Red Bull. The ensuing sugar rush will spike your child’s insulin levels, and heightened insulin levels are the leading cause of diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. Replace juice with water and whole, fresh fruit. The body processes sugar from real fruit in a much healthier and efficient way than juice, due to the natural fiber being ingested. Another benefit is proper vitamin and nutrient absorption, which will help with sugar cravings and keep your kids feeling full longer. For thirst, drink water, and drink it in abundance.
Yes, the old stand-by. Sorry, but crackers are just not good for kids. Most crackers are highly-processed salt-bombs, incredibly high on the glycemic index, and are terrible for your teeth. Replace crackers with baby carrots, celery, or a small cup of fruit. And if you just have to have crackers as an emergency on-the-go snack, look for ones made from seeds or brown rice.
3. Sports Drinks
Most than likely, your kid is not an endurance athlete, so stay far away from the brilliant marketing campaigns of sports drinks. They’re loaded with sugar, empty calories, artificial flavorings, and dyes. These neon-colored, toxic liquids are not health drinks. Replace them with good, old-fashioned water.
Is nothing sacred? Even ketchup? Well, most store-bought brands are loaded with sugar and corn syrup. Ketchup is also highly-processed and filled with preservative and sodium. Substitute with a homemade version, or another healthy condiment, like hummus, babaganoush, or salsa.
5. Mac-n-cheese (even the “healthy” kind)
Whether it’s touted as “all-natural” or “healthy”, most packaged mac-n-cheese is extremely high in sodium, fat, and calories. Because it’s low in fiber and high on the glycemic index, your kids will need to eat a lot of it before they feel satisfied. Make a homemade version, and try experimenting with the ingredients (for example, you can make “noodles” out of ribbons of vegetables, or add broccoli to make a more well-rounded and nutritious meal). I have a feeling that your additions won’t be Yellow No.5 or one-thousand grams of sodium.
6. Microwave Popcorn
Some of my fondest childhood memories are sitting around with my family, watching a movie and eating popcorn. Fortunately, the majority of the popcorn we ate was homemade, with a little butter and salt. Obviously, it’s not the healthiest food in the world, but it might have well been the 1980s-version of kale chips compared to store-bought microwave popcorn. Butter flavoring (as found in microwave popcorn) gets its taste from Diacetyl, a substance which has been banned by some companies due to its link to respiratory illnesses and Alzheimer’s. The microwave-safe bags are coated with chemicals to keep oil from leaking through, as well as to prevent it from catching fire. Sounds like a tasty combination, doesn’t it?
7. Granola Bars
Store-bought granola bars, despite having a nutritional makeup almost identical to candy bars, have always been associated with healthy living. They’re normally loaded with sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, preservatives, and highly-processed grains, making for a very high-calorie snack. Replace with homemade bars; try to include flax seeds, almonds, chocolate chips, honey, and any other healthy ingredients your child likes. Recently it’s become easier to find healthier store-bought bars, but they’re so easy to make at home (and, not to mention, less expensive).
The majority of store-bought yogurt marketed to kids is nothing but dessert masquerading as something nutritious. With as much as twenty-eight grams of sugar per serving, these brightly-colored and artificially-flavored kids’ yogurts can be detrimental. Try real Greek yogurt; it contains probiotics, which can greatly improve gut bacteria, digestive health, and immunity. Look for “live and active cultures” on the label. And if your little one needs that sweet fix in their yogurt, add a touch of honey or berries.
9. Hot Dogs and Lunch Meat
Most kids absolutely love hot dogs and lunch meat. They were a staple of my childhood diet, but full of potentially carcinogenic ingredients, sky-high levels of sodium, and fillers and artificial ingredients. Commit to offering unprocessed meats; they’re much lower in sodium. Even better: buy a whole chicken, roast it at home, and use the meat for an entire week’s worth of lunches and high-protein snacks. Replace with unprocessed meats that are lower in sodium.
With the right toppings, the occasional slice or two of pizza is perfectly fine for most children. However, frequent consumption of cheese, processed meats, and calorie-dense crust will cause obvious issues. Keep in mind that each slice of pizza is equivalent to or larger than one slice of bread, and that’s just the crust! Even if pizza crust is made with whole grains or cornmeal, it can wreck havoc on the digestive track and directly impact insulin levels. If you’re going to let your little ones indulge in pizza, make it at home or buy the best you can get. Don’t double-up on cheese and meats; load it up with veggies instead. Having a colorful salad alongside the pizza helps kids fill up on other things than just the ‘za.
Always remember that you are the number-one example for your kids. Be it nutrition or your behavior, children pick up on your actions, whether positive or negative, because you lead by example. Choose to live a healthy lifestyle filled with real, whole, nutrient-dense foods; choose to cook the majority of your food at home, and sit around the table and talk about your day; choose to ignore the convenience of convenient foods.
Choose to remember that Hippocrates said “let food by thy medicine and medicine be thy food,” suggesting that the choices we make every day can lead to a more vibrant and healthy life. Proper nutrition can prevent future diseases and chronic conditions years down the road.