9 Foods Not to Give Your Kids
By Joe Wilkes
From the Million Dollar Body Club - Join Today and Workout to
If you've followed the news on childhood
obesity lately, you know that the state of affairs is pretty grim. Childhood
obesity rates have tripled over the past two decades and most signs point to
the next generation being the first whose life expectancy will be shorter than
their parents. Much of the blame for this has deservedly been laid at the feet
of the producers and marketers of unhealthy food aimed at our youngest
consumers. They've created an uphill battle for parents trying to compete with
superheroes and cartoon animals for their children's palates and stomachs.
Since most kids have hummingbird metabolisms that
adults can only envy, it's easy to often give them a free pass and let them eat
whatever they want. But eventually those metabolisms slow down, and the pounds
settle in. Also, as physical activity decreases, and processed-food intake
increases, kids aren't burning calories the way their parents might have when
they were their age. And even if the kids aren't getting fat, they are
establishing eating habits that they will take into adulthood. As parents, you
can help foster a love for healthy eating and exercise that will last your kids
a lifetime, hopefully a long one!
I can remember family dinners with my
brother and parents that could teach Hezbollah a thing or two about stand-offs.
Eating is always a classic power struggle where kids try to finally locate
their mom and dad's last nerve. There are a number of strategies you can use to
mitigate this. Let your kids help with the selection and preparation of the
food. If they picked out the veggies at the farmer's market and helped cook
them, they might be less inclined to feed them to the family pet. Also, try to
frame eating vegetables and healthy food as being its own reward. By offering
dessert as a reward for finishing vegetables, you create a system where
unhealthy food is a treat and healthy food sucks.
Someday, your children will realize that caped
men in tights and sponges who live under the sea might not have their best
interests at heart when it comes to food, but until then, here are some of the
worst foods you can try to keep them away from, and some healthy replacement
ideas. And for the overgrown children among you, the alternative snacks might
even tempt you.
Note: The following
recommendations are for school-aged children. Infants and toddlers have
different specific nutritional needs, not addressed in this article.
- Chicken nuggets/tenders. These popular kids-menu items are little nuggets of compressed
fat, sodium, high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), and in some form, chicken.
Depending on the restaurant, chicken might not even be the first ingredient.
Oftentimes, the nuggets or tenders are made of ground pieces of chicken meat
and skin, pressed into a shape, flavored with HFCS and salt, and batter-fried
in hydrogenated oil (the bad, trans-fatty stuff). Then, if that wasn't
unhealthy enough, you dunk it in a HFCS- or mayonnaise-based sauce. With all
the fat, salt, and sugar, it's easy to understand why they're tasty, but the
nutritive value weighed against the huge amount of calories and fat consumed is
incredibly lacking. Even healthier-sounding menu items like McDonald's Premium
Breast Strips (5 pieces) pack 630 calories and 33 grams of fat, more than a Big
Mac, and that's before you factor in the dipping sauce.
Instead: If you're cooking at
home, grill a chicken breast and cut it into dipping-size pieces either with a
knife or, for extra fun, cookie cutters. Make a healthy dipping sauce, with
HFCS-free ketchup, marinara sauce, mustard, or a yogurt-based dip. Let your
kids help make the shapes or mix up the sauce. Try and go without breading, but
if you must, try dipping the chicken breast in a beaten egg, and then rolling
it in cornflake crumbs before you bake it. It'll be crunchy and delicious, but
not as fatty.
- Sugary cereal. I can remember as a child, feeling horribly deprived when I
would go to friends' houses for overnights and be treated in the morning to
cereals with marshmallows that turned the milk fluorescent pink or blue. But
now I can appreciate my mom and her unpopular brans and granolas. True, they
didn't have any toy surprises in the box or any cartoon characters on the box,
but they also didn't have the cups of sugar, grams of fat, and hundreds of
empty calories that these Saturday morning staples are loaded with.
Instead: Read the labels
and try to find cereal that is low in sugar and high in fiber and whole grains.
Remember, "wheat" is not the same as "whole wheat." Also, avoid cereals
(including some granolas) which have hydrogenated oils, artificial colors, or
chemical preservatives. Add raisins, sliced bananas, berries, or other seasonal
fruit to the cereal for extra flavor and nutrition. Again, letting your child
help design a healthy bowl of cereal from choices you provide will get you a
little more buy-in at the breakfast table.
- Lunch meat and hot dogs. Kids
love hot dogs, bologna, and other processed meats, but they are full of
potentially carcinogenic nitrates and nitrites, sodium, saturated fat, and
artificial colors and fillers. A study in Los Angeles found that kids who ate
12 hot dogs a month had nine times the risk of developing leukemia.1
And more health risks are being discovered all the time. Leaf through any
research about kids' nutrition, and you're bound to read about the bane of the
cafeteriaOscar Mayer's Lunchables. These and similar prepackaged lunches are
loaded with processed meats and crackers made with hydrogenated oils. These
innocent-looking meals can boast fat counts of up to 38 grams. That's as much
fat as a Burger King Whopper and over half the recommended daily allowance of
fat for an adult.
Instead: Get unprocessed
meats, like lean turkey breast, chicken, tuna, or roast beef. Use whole wheat
bread for sandwiches; or if your kid's dying for Lunchables, fill a small
plastic container with whole-grain, low-fat crackers, lean, unprocessed meat,
and low-fat cheese. This can be another great time to get out the cookie
cutters to make healthy sandwiches more fun. For hot dogs, read labels
carefully. Turkey dogs are usually a good bet, but some are pumped up with a
fair amount of chemicals and extra fat to disguise their fowl origins. Look for
low levels of fat, low sodium, and a list of ingredients that you recognize.
There are some tasty veggie dogs on the market, although a good deal of trial
and error may be involved for the choosy child.
- Juice and juice-flavored drinks. Juice,
what could be wrong with juice? While 100% juice is a good source of vitamin C,
it doesn't have the fiber of whole fruit, and provides calories mostly from
sugar and carbohydrates. Too much juice can lead to obesity and tooth decay,
among other problems. The American Academy of Pediatrics, suggests 4 to 6
ounces of juice per day for kids under six, and 8 to 12 ounces for older kids.
Juice drinks that aren't 100% juice are usually laced with artificial colors
and that old standby, high-fructose corn syrup, and should be avoided. Your
best bet is to make your own juice from fresh, seasonal fruit. You won't have
to worry about all the additives, and it's another way you can involve your
kids in the cooking process. Let them design their own juice "cocktail." And if
you were even considering soda, perhaps a refresher course from Steve Edwards'
911 series is in order.
Instead: Water is still the best thirst
quencher. Explain the importance of good hydration to your kids, and try to set
a good example yourself by carrying around a water bottle. Get them used to
carrying a small bottle of water in their backpack or attached to their bike.
If they're very water averse, try water with a splash of fruit juice in it. But
just a splash. The idea is to get kids used to not having things be overly
sweet, overly salty, or overly fatty. The other great beverage is milk. Filled
with nutrients, calcium, and protein, growing kids need plenty of milk, though
not so much fat. Choosing low-fat or skim milk will help ensure they get their
milk without becoming a cow.
- French fries. High in calories,
high in fat, and high in sodiumand unsurprisingly, the most popular
"vegetable" among kids. They offer virtually none of the nutrients found in
broccoli, carrots, spinach, or other veggies not found in a deep fryer. And the
fat they're fried in is usually trans fat, the unhealthiest kind for the heart.
To top it all off, studies are beginning to show cancer-causing properties from
acrylamide, a toxic substance that is created when starchy foods like potatoes
are heated to extreme temperatures. In some tests, the amount of acrylamide in
French fries was 300 to 600 times higher than the amount the EPA allows in a
glass of water.2
like baby carrots, celery sticks, or other crudités are great options,
but if potatoes must be had, there are some options that don't begin with
melting a brick of fat. A scooped-out potato skin with low-fat chili and a
little cheese can give lots of fiber and vitamins, with even higher amounts if
the chili has beans. You can also try making baked fries, using slices of
potato with a light brushing of olive oil. Or, the classic baked potato could
be a hit, with yogurt dip or cottage cheese instead of sour cream and
- Chips. Potato
chips, Cheetos, Doritos, etc. These are full of fat, oftentimes saturated, and
way more sodium than any child or adult should eat. Some chips also have the
acrylamide problem discussed under French fries. Also, watch
out for innocent-seeming baked and low-fat chips that contain olestra or other
fake fats and chemicals that could present health issues for kids.
Instead: Kids gotta snack, and in
fact, since their stomachs are smaller, they aren't usually able to go as long
between meals as adults. Cut-up vegetables are the best thing if you want to
get your crunch on, but air-popped popcorn and some baked chips are okay, too.
You can control how much salt goes on the popcorn, or experiment with your
child with other potential popcorn toppings like red pepper, Parmesan cheese,
or dried herbs. Try making your own trail mix with your child. They might be
more excited to eat their own personal blend, and you can avoid certain
store-bought trail mixes, which sometimes contain ingredients like chocolate
chips and marshmallows that are moving down the wrong trail for a healthy
- Fruit leather. Many of these gelatinous snacks like roll-ups or fruit bites
contain a trace amount of fruit but lots of sugar or HFCS and bright artificial
colors. Don't be misled by all the products that include the word "fruit" on
their box. Real fruit is in the produce section, not the candy aisle.
Instead: If your child doesn't show
interest in fruit in its natural state, there are some ways you can adulterate
it without losing its nutritional value. Try filling ice-cube or popsicle trays
with fruit juice or freezing grapes for a healthy frozen treat. Or buy
unflavored gelatin and mix it with fruit juice and/or pieces of fruit to make
gelatin treats without the added sugar and color (another good time for the
cookie cutters!) Try serving some raisins, dried apricots, apples, peaches, or
other fruits that might give you that chewy, leathery texture without the
- Doughnuts. These little deep-fried gobs of joy are favorites for kids and
adults alike, but they are full of fat and trans-fatty acids, and of course,
sugar. Toaster pastries, muffins, and cinnamon buns aren't much better. The
worst thing about doughnuts, and these other pastries, aside from their
nutritional content, is that they're often presented to children as acceptable
breakfast choices. These delicious deadlies need to be categorized
properlyas desserts, to be eaten very sparingly. And you can't have
dessert for breakfast.
Instead: Honestly, a slice of whole-wheat toast spread with sugar-free
fruit spread or peanut butter isn't going to get as many fans as a
chocolate-filled Krispy Kreme, but at some point, you have to stand firm. You
be the cop that doesn't like doughnuts. Doughnutsnot for breakfast.
- Pizza. In moderation, pizza can be a
fairly decent choice. If you order the right toppings, you can get in most of
your food groups. The problem comes with the processed meats like pepperoni and
sausage, which add fat and nitrates/nitrites (see Lunch meat and hot
dogs above); and the overabundance of cheese, which will also provide
more calories and fat than a child needs.
making your own pizza with your kids. Use premade whole wheat crusts, or whole
wheat tortillas, English muffins, or bread as a base. Then brush on HFCS-free
sauce, and set up a workstation with healthy ingredients, like diced chicken
breast, sliced turkey dogs, and vegetables that your child can build his or her
own pizza with. Then sprinkle on a little cheese, bake, and serve. If your
child gets used to eating pizza like this, delivery pizzas may seem unbearably
greasy after awhile.
here to get more pizza tips from the newsletter archive.
For tips on eating out at fast food
out this article. And make sure to read Steve Edwards' article, also in
this newsletter, about how healthy eating and exercise can improve your child's
grades and overall quality of life.
1 Peters J,
et al "Processed meats and risk of childhood leukemia (California, USA)"
Cancer Causes & Control 5: 195-202, 1994
2 Tareke E,
Rydberg P, Karlsson P, et al. Analysis of acrylamide, a carcinogen formed in
heated foodstuffs, J. of Agri and Food Chem. 2002;50:4988-5006