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A Nutritious Diet for Kids

Sometimes it can feel like parents need to go back to school to figure out what healthy food their kids need.  These back-to-school nutrition tips will send you to the head of the class.

1. Add the color of nature to your meals.

   Why? By making a colorful plate full of natural purples, blues, reds, oranges, yellows and greens, you will nourish your body with the positive effects of phytonutrients such as flavonoids, carotenoids and chlorophyll.

   How? The produce department features mangos, carrots, apricots, citrus, plums, blueberries, eggplant, grapes, watermelon, raspberry, beets, salad greens, green beans, winter squash, pumpkin, and dark leafy greens. You can also add color with dried fruits, condiments, frozen berries, and all-fruit jams.

2. Pack well to snack well on the go.

   Why? Snacking is a part of life — especially for busy families. Be prepared with snacks that don't bog you down.

   How? When you need food for the road, try fresh or dried fruit, olives, trail mix, granola, popcorn, crackers, applesauce cups, vegetarian sushi, nuts and seeds, and nutrition bars. For protein-rich snacks, try nut butters, yogurts or kefirs, nitrate-free deli meats, hummus, cheese and soy products.

3. Go organic.

   Why? Organic foods are grown without potentially harmful pesticides. Pound for pound, children eat more fruits and vegetables than adults and are therefore exposed to a higher level of possible contaminants. For parents concerned about the consequences to their children's health, organic fruits and vegetables are always a good choice.

   How? Among the top organic options are strawberries, apples, spinach, cantaloupe, and grapes. Make sure you have good supply of ready-cut, easy-to-eat raw fruit and veggies. Pair them with dip (yogurt, hummus, guacamole or prepared dip) to make a great snack. Vegetable juice is an additional, often overlooked source of vitamins and minerals. And don't be afraid to go stealth and sneak necessary vegetables into spaghetti sauce, meatloaf, spreads and muffins.

4. Steer clear of partially hydrogenated fats.

   Why? The hydrogenation process transforms vegetable oils from their natural liquid state into solid fats. The result is a fat with a chemical configuration that is not found in nature — one that is rich in trans fatty acids. Some scientists speculate that the body cannot use trans fatty acids in the same way as natural fats. Studies have shown that trans fatty acids raise LDL (bad) cholesterol levels and decrease HDL (good) cholesterol levels, a net result that has been shown to increase the risk of coronary heart disease. In fact, trans fatty acids have an even worse impact on cholesterol levels than diets high in butter, which contains saturated fat.

   How? Hydrogenated fats are manmade and prevalent in conventional processed foods. Check labels of baked goods, cookies, snack foods, crackers, and breakfast cereals to be sure they are free of hydrogenated fats.

5. Fuel the brain with omega-3s.

   Why? Omega-3 fatty acids are the primary components of brain tissue and are vital for brain development. A diet rich in these fatty acids is essential for adults and children alike. Additional benefits of omega-3 fatty acids include the promotion of heart and mental health.

   How? Coldwater fish (salmon, tuna), flax seed, dark leafy greens, and walnuts are good sources of omega-3 fatty acids.

6. Choose sweeteners wisely.

   Why? Higher intake of refined sugar has been implicated in many health problems, from obesity to diabetes to dental decay. In addition, eating excessive amounts of nutrient-poor, sugar-rich foods can diminish the appetite for more nutritious foods. A huge culprit is the consumption of soft drinks, whose intake exceeds that of milk, fruit juices and bottled waters, especially among children.

   How? While sweet foods are an inevitable part of a child's diet, look for more wholesome options high in nutrients but lower in sugar. Have plenty of fresh seasonal fruits or dried fruits on hand for dessert or snacks, plain or served with yogurt, nuts, nut butters, or cream cheese. Provide unsweetened applesauce and apple butter for naturally sweet toppings on bagels or cinnamon toast. Or top applesauce with granola for an instant apple crisp. For a fruity soft drink alternative, dilute 100 percent fruit juices with carbonated mineral water. And try alternative sweeteners such as maple syrup, molasses, honey, and barley malt when creating your own cookies and cakes.

7. De-stress at breakfast time.

   Why? Breakfast can be a "fast break," a hectic time of day for most families. By preparing ahead with high quality foods, you can ensure a healthy, balanced meal despite the scarcity of time.

   How? Prepare portions in the evening before bed. Have cereal, oatmeal, milk and yogurt on hand for quick meals when necessary. Frozen breakfast foods or smoothies can be a good solution for busy mornings as well. And don't forget to eat colorfully at breakfast: pre-cut fruit, juice and all-fruit jams help make breakfast a balanced meal.

8. Healthy foods for harried lives.

   Why? With the time famine that plagues many active families today, it's not always possible to cook a balanced, wholesome meal every evening. Instead of relying on nutrient-poor options, look for healthier, flavorful prepared foods when a quick meal is needed.

   How? Pick up a rotisserie-roasted chicken, oven-roasted vegetables and fresh mixed greens. Warm the entrée while tossing the salad with your favorite dressing. Also, when cooking in large quantities, remember to freeze meal-sized portions so there will be quick meals available in the future to grab and heat. For making quick meals at home, stir-fries, soups (made in the crock pot), burritos, meatloaf, wraps, and chili are good, easy choices.

9. Eat foods with a low glycemic index.

   Why? The glycemic index is a measure of how quickly a carbohydrate is digested, enters the bloodstream, and raises blood sugar levels. High glycemic index foods, such as refined flours and high sugar beverages, are quickly digested, causing a rapid spike in blood sugar and insulin levels. Such effects have been linked to diabetes, overeating and obesity. Low glycemic index foods, on the other hand, contribute to a steadier blood sugar level and have been shown to lower cholesterol levels and decrease the risk of diabetes. Replacing high glycemic index foods with low glycemic index foods is an important step for balanced blood sugar levels and healthy eating habits.

   How? In general, foods high in fiber and protein have a lower glycemic index and are more satiating. Beans, dairy products, fruits and vegetables and whole grains are foods with the lowest glycemic indices. Try not to eat a high glycemic index food by itself; by combining with a low glycemic index food, the net result is a positive one for blood sugar levels. For example, eat a bagel with peanut butter or a banana with yogurt to gain greater balance.

10. Be patient with kids when introducing new foods.

   Why? Up to 15 tastes may be required for children to accept and enjoy new dishes and ingredients.

   How? Be patient with your children. When introducing a new food, try to highlight similarities with other foods your children like and are familiar with. For example, if your children like chicken, try turkey or duck; if they like oranges, try tangerines. Telling stories or presenting information about the foods on the table may help pique your children's interest.

JODY VILLECCO is an in-house nutrition expert and quality standards expert for Whole Foods Market.


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