Nutrition Facts: What to Grow in a Kid’s Garden

girl with plantIn Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy wrote “Spring is the time of plans and projects.” Plans and projects keep children out of trouble–or at least involve them in safer, more manageable trouble.

What could be better than digging in the dirt and playing in a spray of water on a hot summer day? What more creative than an adventure in the wilds of your back yard? Add in sunshine, fresh air and exercise, and planting a garden becomes the springtime activity of choice.

One of the best ways to coax kids into eating what is good for them is to involve them in its preparation. They are far more likely to eat the lunch they prepared with their own two hands than one you slaved over. If they help you peel and cut up carrots for dinner they will try them, and brag about their contribution while chewing.

Extend this a bit and you reap the miracle of children eating their vegetables because they grew them in their very own garden. They planted the seeds, watched over them, watered them, and cared for them. They will proudly eat the fruits of their labor and proclaim their tastiness.

Children need a variety of vitamins and minerals in order to function and grow, and the best place to get those nutrients, along with carbs for energy and fiber for bowel function, is in fruits and vegetables. Some, like beans and peas, are even excellent sources of protein. Many of them can be grown in small plots or in containers on a porch.

Carrots can be grown easily from seeds bought in your local garden store, and are very high in Vitamin A. Vitamin A helps with eyesight–especially night vision–which is why your mom always told you to eat lots. Watermelon, peas, peppers, beans, and tomatoes also have bunches of Vitamin A.

Tomatoes, peppers, and beans are high in B complex vitamins. B vitamins like riboflavin, niacin, thiamine and folic acid are tiny machines that allow your body to function. They help with everything from making blood cells, to generating energy from carbohydrates, to scavenging free radicles and protecting you from cancer.

Strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries are high in Vitamin C, which is necessary for collagen synthesis and wound healing and is an effective antioxidant. Without Vitamin C, people get scurvy.

Minerals are also easily come by on the plant side of your plate.

Calcium to build strong bones can be found in beans.

Potatoes, beans, corn, and mushrooms are high in iron, which helps carry oxygen around your body.

Potassium, necessary for muscle contraction and to maintain your heart rhythm, is present in potatoes, berries, peas, beans, and peppers.

Essential minerals like magnesium, phosphorus, copper, and zinc are all available in fruits and vegetables.

I’ve never seen a child turn down a pea fresh from the pod, or a strawberry plucked from the plant. Find a plant catalogue, pour through it with your child, pay attention to what will grow in your area and how much room the plants need to grow, and choose. Consider what you have room for: will these be container plants on the porch, or can you spare a patch of yard? Do you have space for a tree, or are we looking at a mushroom kit in the closet?

Some of my favorite kid friendly plants are peas, beans, peppers, tomatoes, and the ever popular carrot. Melons, pumpkins, and cucumbers are great if you have a little more room. Berries come in all sizes, from tiny strawberry plants fit for containers with pockets down the side, to raspberry vines best grown on trellises, to fat thorny blackberry bushes. Tires can be stacked up and filled with dirt in a tower as potato plants grow, then harvested by taking off one tire at a time.

Growing a few plants allows you to spend time with your children, get some exercise, and build some vitamin D of your own from all that sunshine. Have a conversation about science and nutrition while you are digging in the dirt. Money can be earned and financial lessons taught by naming the watering and weeding of those plants “chores.” Other lessons can be taught without any conversation: responsibility for life, the fruitfulness of hard work, and pride of accomplishment. Don’t miss this opportunity for spring plans and projects!

Domesticated Momster

The Kid’s Menu: Food Marketing to Children

Kids Menu Title Text

Happy New Year! If you resolved to feed your munchkins a healthier diet (yay!), you need to know that purveyors of fast food are not on your side. Their success depends on your failure, and they have bigger wallets than you do.

Knowledge is power, so some facts about fast food advertising from the Rudd Center:

  • In 2012, 4.6 billion dollars was spent on fast food advertising. That is a hard number for me to get my brain around. 4.6 billion dollars will buy 920 million kid’s meals: 33,000 lifetimes worth of daily happy meals. Imagine the profit that must be generated to make spending that amount of money reasonable. These people are not your friends.
  • Fewer than 1% of kid’s meals (33 out of 5427)  met USDA nutrition standards.
  • Only 3% of kid’s meals met the industry’s own standards.

Fast food was traditionally advertised in print, on TV and radio, and on billboards. Add on product placement and packaging (that attractive box is not at small-hand-reaching-from-cart-distance by accident). Pile on celebrity endorsements and the use of popular characters (Spongebob Squarepants Fruit Snacks anyone?)

Newer methods embrace social media, including YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook. Americans spent an estimated 121 billion minutes–a total of 230,213 years–on social media in 2012. Where better to find a potential customer?

Social media sites entice with advergames, contests, points to redeem, and free downloads; if your child subscribes to or follows a YouTube or Twitter site he or she is volunteering to be sent endless “opportunities,” with ads on the side. They recruit their users (your children) to “share” and “invite” friends to participate on the websites–free word of mouth advertising! The star of social media is Facebook, but it comes with 6 billion fast food ads–19% of the total ads on the site.

Advertisers hire brilliant marketers to design attractive logos which grab the attention of potential customers. Food stylists make their options look better than they ever do in reality. Ads hint at advantages beyond the food: “Live every day with love” with Ne-Yo at McDonalds, or have cool friends with applewood smoked “bacon teens” at Wendy’s. They suggest health benefits and a happier, more carefree life. They bait with prices that will feed your children more cheaply than the grocery store, until you switch to higher priced items at the counter.

McDonalds alone spends almost three times the dollars on advertisements than all of the fruit, vegetable, water, and milk producers combined.

Children’s advocates fight to decrease fast food advertisements aimed at children, and increase ads for nutritious foods. We fight to have most of the kid’s options healthy, not just the current average of 2%. We work to make fast food restaurants default to a healthy option (apples and milk, rather than fries and soda), and keep those healthy options affordable. We have made inroads, but the struggle is a mountain and profit motive is a mudslide.

Fast food ads have presence in your child’s life. They are unavoidable. Your children will see them and will want what they are selling.

We have absolutely no evidence that media literacy in any way defends against the effectiveness of advertisements. None. Knowing that they are trying to sell you something that is bad for you does not keep you from wanting it. You may not remember that you can “live every day with love” with Ne-Yo, but you will get a bit of a lift when you see that bright red and gold sign. We are grown ups, and we fall for the ads. We cannot expect more of our children than we do of ourselves.

In the end, it comes down to committing to do the right thing, and then acting on that commitment:

  • Clean out your cupboards and throw out all the junk.
  • Make a meal plan for the week before you shop.
  • Shop with a list made from that meal plan.
  • Shop at farmer’s markets and around the outer rim of the grocery store. Avoid the aisles unless there is something on your list that is on that aisle.
  • Prepare meals ahead for busy nights, so that you don’t end up in that line at the fast food restaurant.
  • Keep healthy snack food available to hand: fruits and veggies, whole grain crackers, cheese, popcorn… Throw out the chips and snack cakes.
  • Eat the food you bought, at home, with your kids, at the table and with the TV off. So much better than the fast food line with your kids bickering in the back seat!

Most importantly, be consistent.

Remember that “never” is much easier for a child to understand and deal with than “sometimes.” If you never stop at the drive through and never buy junk food, after the first two weeks your kids will rarely ask, even though they saw that yummy advertisement a dozen times and really wanted to try those fruit snacks.

If you sometimes give in, they will ask until your ears bleed. Pestering is powerful when you’re tired and stressed.

You can do this. They have 4.6 billion dollars on their side, but you have love for your children and the responsibility they handed you with that warm sweet bundle. You win.

Domesticated Momster

Childhood Obesity: How do we have an impact?

broccoli-01So, last week’s blog was about the whys behind the increase in childhood obesity: why it has gained such a firm hold in our society, and why we need to care. This week is about how we can promote change, going into the future. What works? What is the plan?

Our objective is clear: we want healthy children. To achieve this when our children are overweight, we need to decrease the calories they take in, and increase their activity: get rid of junk foods and get them moving. If children take in more calories than they work off, the excess is stored as fat. Math works.

We also need to get our children to eat only nutritious foods, except on special occasions. If kids eat junk, which does not have in it the nutrients they need, they have to overeat total calories to get those nutrients. Bad idea. So how do we make this happen?

We start by using the power of positive reinforcement. It is a proven fact that rewards work better than punishments to change people’s behavior. It is human nature to repeat actions that make us feel happy and appreciated. Hence the popularity of slobbery dogs. Even better: how long would you go to work if you did not get a paycheck? Do you find that you do better work when you feel appreciated? If we are going to change habits, we need to focus on the positive and let go of the negative. We need to make eating healthful foods and being active more rewarding than stopping for fast food and eating chips. This is not hard, because there are a multitude of easy rewards appropriate for eating your broccoli: from smiles and hugs to feeling good and saving money. How could a toy in a kid’s meal possibly compare?

Never try to place blame: it evades personal responsibility and it solves nothing. Similarly, not only is it unkind to judge and condemn people for being overweight, it is also ineffective as a means for change: it doesn’t work. Stop doing it, and intervene when someone else does it.

Do set up the playing field in your favor. Only buy healthful foods. It is much harder to eat a doughnut when you get home from school if no one bought doughnuts. It is difficult to buy a soda at school if there is no vending machine. It is immeasurably easier to win a battle that is never engaged.

Consistency and routine are your best weapons to take into the fray. If you sometimes stop for fast food on the way home from school, simply getting into the car can elicit demands. The trigger is already in place to remind your children of their habit.  Alternatively, if you never stop for fast food on the way home, why would it even come up in the conversation? If the routine is “never”, the response to a request for a snack cake is a head shake and a laugh; if the routine is “sometimes”, the response to a no is whining, each and every time. Children’s minds settle comfortably into routine and habit, so a habit of only eating healthful food will save you a lifetime of arguments.

Rethink what and how you feed your children at the most basic level, to redesign those routines. Start with awareness of what your children need every day, then plan meals that will get them there. Don’t buy the foods that do not have the nutrients they need. Get rid of preconceptions based on family history, media, and friends (contrary to popular belief, there is no daily requirement for potato chips, and “only one soda a day” is one too many). Evaluate your family home and everyday habits. When and where are we keeping food and eating it? What needs to change? Does your child walk by a pantry filled with snack cakes and chips as he gets home from school? What might happen if we throw those out and place a bowl of fruit in his path? What if the only cold drinks in the refrigerator were water and low fat milk? What if we required our family to gather at the dinner table and converse? Change the routines, because when we change a habit the effect of that small change is magnified by the multitude of days in which that habit would have persisted.

On the other side of the equation is the burning off of those calories. The target for children’s activity is a minimum of 45 – 60 minutes of vigorous exercise as many days as possible. This needs to include all kids, not just athletes, because the purpose is to get fit, not to win fame. By no means should this be their only activity: as a general rule, if they are awake and not tied to a desk or reading, they should me moving. The first step to getting them moving is to limit non-educational screen time to maximum of 2 hours per day. Bore them into activity. They can choose the type, as long as they are moving. The second step is to get up and do it with them.

Make a plan and a commitment, and then act:

  • First, purge the pantry of all junk food (no “We paid good money for that food!”) Throw it away.
  • Make a meal plan of nutritious foods for the week, considering your schedule, and write out a grocery list. Only buy what is on the list. Read labels (watch total calories, not just fat or sugar). Emphasize fresh, seasonal foods.
  • Aim for fully half of what your family eats to be fruits and vegetables.
  • Make less food, and serve smaller portions. Hungry children can have seconds and thirds on the broccoli, not the potatoes, because you didn’t make more potatoes.
  • Teach your kids to eat slowly, putting their fork down between bites to enjoy conversation with the rest of the family. Let their brains catch up with their stomachs.
  • Eat more high fiber foods (they are more filling), less meat and starch.
  • Eat at home, as a family. Restaurant portion sizes are too large, and they use too much salt, fat, and sugar.
  • Teach your children to eat when they are hungry rather than for reward, comfort, or boredom; also to stop eating when they are no longer hungry. Be a good example.
  • Make it a rule that treats are only for special occasions.
  • Do not expect a quick fix; results come over the long term.
  • Last, realize that kids have one big advantage: if they just keep their weight the same, they can grow into it. Don’t make weight loss the goal. The goal is a long-term habit of eating a nutritious diet.

Ignore the peanut gallery, because you have to persevere: their lives depend upon it. It is the responsibility of the parent, caregiver, coach, and school to offer the children in their care nutritious foods and to be a good example. Do not feel guilty because they are temporarily unhappy! You love them; therefor you will not give them foods that cause all those awful health problems. You will do this for ever and ever, because when the grown-ups are consistent, the kids give up.

Recruit your friends and family, because “it takes a village” (sorry, couldn’t resist). This might in the end mean avoiding people – family and friends – who undermine your efforts. Grandma can see her baby when she learns to behave.

Community support is absolutely necessary if we want to turn this around. Schools must consider what food is available for breakfasts, lunches, and in vending machines. The adults in children’s lives need to be good examples: from parents to teachers to Hollywood actors and sports figures. Education needs to be readily available for both children and their grown-ups. Adult education resources are needed for parents, childcare workers and community leaders to learn about nutrition, the basics of meal planning, grocery shopping, and cooking.

If we can change the community of thought about food and exercise, kids will not be alone in developing new healthy habits. Their parents will also become more fit, as they role model healthy behavior. Our society’s medical costs will shrink, along with a mountain of heartbreak, family stress and financial woes.

When people have knowledge about nutrition and are in the habit of eating healthy food when they are actually hungry, they will pass this knowledge and these habits down to their children, and their children’s children, and healthy habits will persist. They can change the future of their family.

We can do this, and it is absolutely worth doing.

Childhood Obesity: Why It Happens

So. My goal for this blog was to be both accurate and comprehensive; broccoli-01the result was that it was very long. We need to have a thorough understanding of both the why’s and the how to’s if we want to make a difference in childhood obesity. This week covers just the first half, so you won’t nod off before the end. Today is all about the what and why; next week is about how we fix the problem.

Obesity is defined as weight more than 20% above a person’s ideal weight for their height. Morbid obesity is weight in enough excess that it affects a person’s health, or “causes morbidity.” In 2010, more than 1 in 3 children were overweight or obese. At a time in their lives when children should be running free and unencumbered, they are instead carrying the baggage of a society that has lost its way. Although issues like hypothyroidism and low levels of Leptin (a hormone that makes us feel full) can cause weight gain, medical causes account for less than 1% of the overweight kids.

Obesity has more than doubled in children and tripled in adolescents in the past 30 years. Rather than 5 or 7% of children being morbidly obese, as they were in the 80’s, now 18% are. Three quarters of these obese teens will become obese adults.

Why do we care? There are, of course, the physical health risks, including:

  • heart disease
  • stroke
  • high blood pressure
  • type 2 diabetes
  • degenerative arthritis
  • chronic back and knee pain
  • slipped capitofemoral epiphysis (a crippling hip injury)
  • ankle fractures
  • several forms of cancer (colon, thyroid, prostate, and breast, among others)
  • pseudogynecomastia (breast development in boys)
  • gallstones
  • obstructive sleep apnea
  • pancreatitis
  • skin infections
  • deficiencies of zinc, calcium, iron, magnesium, and folic acid from a junk food diet

There are also serious mental health risks, including low self-esteem, body image issues by as young as 5 years, anxiety, and depression. Overweight children are frequently the victims of exclusionism, taunts, and ridicule. Bullying overweight people is one of the last socially acceptable forms of bigotry.

Last, there are lifestyle limitations. For overweight children activity is harder, and the vicious cycle of a sedentary lifestyle causing weight gain, which causes a lower activity level, which causes weight gain, persists. Fueling this also is the fact that obese children will be offered fewer opportunities: they are rarely the first picked for the team, or the cool new job. Even their dating choices will be affected, partly by their appearance, but more by the damage to their self-esteem. There are also financial stresses, from the expense of processed foods, to increased medical costs, to fewer chances in the workplace.

So why do we do nothing about it?

First, we simply don’t see it. When our whole family, neighborhood, region, or country is overweight, after a while it becomes what we see as normal. Add on that our child has always been this shape. When shown silhouettes of children and asked which is most similar to their own child, parents of overweight children will pick out a thinner silhouette as theirs. The extra pounds become as invisible as the individual trees in the forest.

We don’t know what to do to fix it and, as adults, we are embarrassed to admit our ignorance. Add to this that people fear change. Grown-ups like to feel capable and comfortable in their lives. People generally take what they learned in childhood as true, and continue unquestioningly down that reassuring and undemanding path. It can take an unexpected event, like a child being diagnosed with diabetes, to shake them up and make them think about their choices. Even then, parents need to be able to find the resources to learn, and there are few easily accessible ways for an adult with only a few spare minutes to learn about nutrition, grocery shopping, cooking, and exercise. So we flounder, and persist in our habits.

If we do decide to change, it can be just too hard. Learning about nutrition, grocery shopping, cooking and exercise, in addition to working at our jobs and taking care of our families, is difficult to fit into the schedule. Then we have to actually do the grocery shopping, cooking and exercising. Add on fighting with children, and possibly a spouse, used to eating whatever they want and zoning out in front of a screen (TV or computer) whenever they want. It is immeasurably easier to let them snack on junk and watch a screen, than to make them eat vegetables and exercise.

Moreover, people believe that preparing nutritious food and getting their kids to be more active requires resources that they do not have. They truly believe fresh nutritious foods are expensive, when in actuality 4 servings of vegetables or 3 servings of fruit can be had for about a dollar. They believe their kids won’t eat healthy foods, and the groceries they spent their hard earned money on will rot. They have seen it happen before. When kids have both healthy food and junk options, flavor saturated junk wins, and healthy foods go bad. Similarly, parents believe that if they want their kids to exercise, they have to pay for expensive exercise programs and organized sports. In reality, play is free.

People see their behavior as acceptable, because everyone they know eats and behaves in the same way. Even the advertisements they see, and the TV and movies they watch, inevitably show people eating fast food and junk.

Last, the reason we hide even from ourselves: parents are unwilling to have change interfere with their own lives. They don’t want to spend what little free time they have preparing food and exercising with their children. They are comfortable with their routines. It is easier to let the screen entertain the kids, and they have no real interest in getting up and playing with their progeny. They are equally unwilling to do without the foods they like, even though they know they should do better. Since no one wants to cop to this, they instead pile the weight of conviction onto all the other, less guilt inducing, reasons.

If we want to improve our children’s health, these are the obstacles and the challenges. Human nature is an unalterable certainty. Ignoring it while trying to force change will get us nowhere. Next week’s blog will be about how to work within the confines of human nature to change the choices parents make, and help our children live healthier lives.