When we think of makeovers, new hairstyles and expensive clothing come to mind. But how about a more important kind of fixing up? How about making over some of the foods we keep in our pantries?
I invited Susan Gralla, R.D., nutrition director of Vernon Nutrition Center in Ramsey, into our kitchen to open the pantry and give me the thumbs up or thumbs down for what was there on the shelf. Surprisingly, Gralla, also a certified specialist in pediatric weight management didn’t get rid of too much of what we have, instead stressing balance in the foods we serve. "Kids can have some of the less healthy stuff if healthier options are eaten as well. It’s all about balance and moderation."
"Somehow the term snack foods became popular, and it has been used as an excuse to eat foods which can be unhealthy, like packaged foods with ingredients we can’t pronounce," says Susan. "We need to start seeing snack time as opportunities to offer more balanced, wholesome mini meals."
Pizza-flavored goldfish crackers are a favorite of my 10-year-old, and because nutritionally they aren’t the best bet, Susan suggested using them in a trail mix. "If you mix together some of these with whole-grain goldfish and pretzels, as well as nuts and some raisins it becomes a healthy snack." And, she says, I should let my daughter create her own mix. "If she’s part of choosing the healthy ingredients, and she can change it up she’ll be more likely to eat it."
Chips and salsa make a terrific food combo to snack on, Susan says. With tomatoes and onions, it can be considered a veggie serving and the Tostitos chips (with a serving size of 12 chips) come in a whole-grain version as well.
Pop Tarts: We thought we were being healthy when we found Nature’s Path Toaster Pastries for my son. A great alternative to the more sugared treat, right? Wrong. While the ingredients are recognizable, it’s still pretty high in sugars and although it lists wheat flour, amounts are not listed. The fiber is only 1 gram and it has saturated fats. "This will be something he will burn through pretty quickly so try and balance it with lean protein or low fat dairy or utilize it as a ‘some time’ rather than an ‘everyday’ choice."
Clif Bars/Granola Bars are a go-to snack for us between sports on a Saturday afternoon, because they are dense and seem to fill the kids up. A pretty good choice says Susan: "They have fiber and protein and have staying power, so they won’t be zooming through the kitchen after eating it saying ‘What’s next I’m really hungry!’" But they are thick and chewy and not everyone’s favorite. For the more traditional granola bars there are plenty of varieties to choose from on the grocery store shelf. Comparing a brand like Kashi or Lara Bars to others shows that they are higher in protein and fiber. Some brands have carbs and no protein or fiber, so check labels carefully.
Pretzel sticks are a favorite with my kids and their friends, because they can grab them and go, but they’re not getting any real nutrition from them. "Most pretzel brands now have whole grain options that really taste good and are low in fat," Susan says. Balance comes in again when they are served with humus and/or some fruits and veggies.
Gatorade/Juice/Water: We’ve been serving our kids Gatorade since they were small figuring it had to be better then juice boxes, and, of course, soda. We were wrong. "Gatorade was created for athletes who are sweating and losing sodium and potassium. It has electrolytes to replace them. It also gives you carbohydrates in the form of sugars to keep you in the game. But if you drink it while you’re just hanging out at home, it’s not good. You don’t need to replace something you’re not losing." Water is what our bodies need, but if it’s a flavored drink they want, she suggests trying 100 percent juice where you’re getting vitamin C (and some are even fortified with calcium).
Chocolate milk is a big hit for lunch at our house. Skim milk is healthy because it has carbohydrates, protein, calcium and vitamin D, so if squirting some chocolate sauce in makes it go down easier that’s OK. "As long as it’s mostly milk with chocolate syrup and not mostly chocolate syrup with milk it’s fine."
"My general rule of thumb is to look for cereals with less than 8 grams of sugar per serving as well as at least 2 grams of fiber," says Susan. We are a cereal family, without a doubt. A Sunday night dinner of cereal is not unheard of in our house and it is often served as a snack before bedtime. My daughter loves Cinnamon Life and my son and I live on Honey Nut Cheerios, both pretty good choices according to Susan. (Their dad chooses one brand that has 14 grams of fiber, too fiber-rich for our blood). There are a lot of bad cereal choices out there and the worst ones seem obvious. "If you see a cereal with the word ‘cookie’ in the title steer clear," she says. "It will likely be all carbohydrates and no fiber which is what it’s like eating real cookies. So with these cereals you’re starting the whole craving cycle early in the day because you’re having more of the rapidly processed foods."
While we’ve got Eggo’s Nutri-Grain Whole Wheat Waffles in our freezer, when it’s served with syrup there isn’t much goodness going down. "The waffles are a carbohydrate and the syrup is a carbohydrate so there really is no variety in this meal," says Susan. Instead serve it with fresh fruit or yogurt, even as a side dish to a plate of eggs would work.
The thing about bread, most parents will agree, is that kids have kinds they like and kinds they won’t touch. "If your child will only eat white bread and won’t eat anything that is brown or has seeds or nuts, look for the highest fiber count you can find in a brand they will eat. One hundred percent whole grain or whole-wheat breads are the best."
Pepperidge Farm Oatmeal Bread is a crowd favorite in our house. This bread seems like the healthiest version of bread, but with only 1 serving of dietary fiber per slice it’s not filled with as many good ingredients as we thought. When compared to Pepperidge Farm Whole Grain White Bread, it didn’t measure up. The whole grain white version has 3 grams of dietary fiber per slice, and though both have high fructose corn syrup, the higher fiber makes the latter a better choice.
There isn’t a better way to get fruit servings into your kids then with smoothies, says Susan. And she recommends using frozen fruit. "I like this option because frozen fruit can’t go bad in the freezer, and also when it’s frozen it makes an icier and frothier drink. In the hot summer it feels like a special treat."
While we usually have regular penne pasta in the pantry I recently bought a whole-wheat penne that we have yet to try. Susan suggested in lieu of making a fast and total transition to the whole-wheat version, we should mix the two together to make the switch easier. She also recommended doing this with our favorite Kraft Macaroni & Cheese microwave meals. "If you add about a cup of whole-wheat elbow macaroni to the Kraft macaroni, you’re cutting down on the cheese, and with whole-grain pasta you’re getting less artificial ingredients and sodium and adding fiber."
Final words from Susan…
"With every trip to the market, as parents we have the opportunity to decide what goes into our grocery carts and ultimately into our kids. You make the choice. It’s all about balance. If you present your family with mostly nourishing everyday foods, like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low fat dairy, lean proteins and healthy fats and cut down on processed foods, you will be providing them with the very important building blocks of good health."
Lucy Probert is a Bergen County writer, mom and The Parent Paper’s It Works for Me columnist.