Feeding Our Children Well

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Changing a family's diet comes down to gradually serving more of what is healthy, and less of what is not. Change happens more effectively when taken in small steps. No one wants the kids (or the adults!) to freak out with too many changes all at once. At the same time, it doesn't seem very helpful to kids when adults make food choices based on what they think kids will eat, instead of what's healthiest. My dietician friend tells me that it's the adults' job to serve the best meals they can, and the kid's job to eat when she's hungry. Sometimes it takes many exposures (like 8-15) before some kids will like a new food. Hopefully, taking it slow, serving food that really does taste good, and having some adventurous eaters in the group will help those who are a little reluctant.

Putting a little more emphasis on healthy food at home could mean serving more nutritious food (nutrient-dense), or that you serve higher quality food (organic, fresh, not processed) - or both. Here are some ideas for both more nutritious and higher quality foods.

Serve whole grains instead of white

  • Switch to whole wheat noodles and brown rice. Mainstream grocery stores now sell good whole wheat pastas; where I live they cost about $1.50 per pound.
  • Look for a whole wheat bread that has whole wheat flour as the first ingredient.
  • Serve whole grain crackers like Ak-mak, RyVita or whole wheat pretzels. All of these crackers have few other ingredients, and are low in fat.

Serve fewer or better processed foods

  • Take hotdogs, chicken nuggets, and canned soup out of the rotation. (Sorry! You knew I was going to recommend that though, right?)
  • Upgrade to a macaroni and cheese product that has real (and/or organic) cheese, whole grain noodles, and/or no artificial colors.
  • Switch to butter, if you haven't already. Margarine is really, really not good for you.

Bring a few more vegetables into the mix
Sweet potatoes are said to be the most nutrient dense item in the produce aisle, and they are yummy. Bake them, boil them, roast them, mash them : you can't go wrong, unless you put marshmallow cream on top. Other nutrient dense veggies include broccoli (more Vitamin C than an orange and half as much calcium as milk), cauliflower, bell peppers, carrots, and (of course) dark, leafy greens.

Organic vs. conventional produce
People have a lot of different opinions about which fruits and vegetables it's most important to get organic. A general rule for fruit would be that if you're going to eat the skin, try to have it be organic. For vegetables, I would try to avoid conventional potatoes, peppers, and celery. If using conventional potatoes, be sure to peel them.

Organic vs. conventional meat and dairy
Conventional meat and dairy are two big things to think about reducing or eliminating. Conventional milk and meat generally come from herds that are fed antibiotics and growth hormones on a regular basis. There is growing evidence that these drugs are traveling far and wide through the food system. The more you know about them, the less you want to eat them. With the dairy, both the growth hormones and the routine use of antibiotics are a concern. The good news is that in many places there are plenty of clean dairy products available. Same is true of meat. At our house, we eat some meat but not a lot, because the meat we get is relatively expensive.

Milk and cheese
If you do decide to get organic milk, watch out for "ultra-pasteurized" kind. Stores that don't sell much milk often carry this because they can leave it on the shelf for weeks or months before it goes bad. The problem is, the "ultra" pasteurization means it got heated higher, longer. Besides the nasty effect on the taste, my understanding is that the protein is rendered totally indigestible.

We try to buy organic cheese, but it is often expensive. Some stores carry some "rBGH free" cheeses, which are kind of a middle ground. They're not organic, but at least there were no growth hormones used on the cows.

Creating your own guidelines
It is helpful to create some guidelines about what types of food you want to encourage, and what kinds you want to avoid. This makes decisions about individual foods easier. For example, you might decide to start emphasizing whole grains instead of white foods (pasta, rice, crackers). Or you might decide to not serve foods with high fructose corn syrup in them. The corn syrup has no nutritional value, and this rule keeps you away from most of the junk. Same with hydrogenated oils and artificial colors - there's reason to believe these things are worse than previously thought, so we may as well avoid them.

Here is a list of things that you could consider reducing or avoiding - not all at once, and maybe not ever for some of them, depending on your priorities and preferences.

  • Conventional (vs. organic or rBGH-free) dairy
  • Conventional meat
  • Certain conventional fruits and veggies
  • High fructose corn syrup
  • Artificial colors
  • "White" foods (pasta, rice, crackers)
  • Genetically modified ingredients (includes all non-organic corn and corn products)
  • Refined sugar
  • Juice
  • Processed foods

Here's an example of how you might categorize these. You could use something like this in communicating with parents about the changes you're making:

Encourage Reduce Avoid
  • Whole grains
  • High quality sources of protein
  • Low sugar snacks
  • Vegetables and fruits, organic as affordable, local/seasonal when available
  • Processed foods
  • Conventional dairy
  • Refined sugar
  • Genetically modified ingredients (includes all non-organic corn/corn derivatives)
  • White flour Juice
  • Artificial colors/flavors
  • Conventional meat
  • High fructose corn syrup
  • Hydrogenated oils


By: Lisa Carey | Aug 28, 2010 08:42 PM | Permalink
Thank you writing this article. This is precisely the direction we are going as a family for all our foods. We sell 100% grass fed beef, so we have had the opportunity to educate ourselves about the quality of pasture raised and finished beef over grain finished and concentrated feed lot operator managed beef. Our next step is to find pasture raised chickens and eggs from pasture raised chickens. Thank you again for your leadership for our children and families!

By: Harlan and Lori Archer | Aug 28, 2010 07:54 PM | Permalink
Very well-written article. I have been packing lunches for children for 20 + years, because their private school lunchroom had deep-fried junk that was hugely overpriced. We have grown our own vegetables and fruits for the past 17 years and are looking forward to having our own goat and/or Jersey milk in the next few months.

By: Denny Hunt | Aug 27, 2010 09:50 PM | Permalink
Might be prudent to take one step back and consider the logic of what public schools are in the first place; government schools and thus the fox feeds the hens, but apparently not for health!

John Taylor Gatto's recent article "The Way It Used To Be" on Lew Rockwell's site on Thursday Aug. 26 seems to sum up the problem accurately.

Of course, removing one's child from a government school is no small undertaking, but considering that these schools might be broke beyond repair it is perhaps a reasonable alternative to just make their lunch.

By: Carol A Buck | Aug 27, 2010 08:18 PM | Permalink
I recently saw a Top Chef episode where the challenge was to serve a high quality, nutricious lunch to a middle school in Washington DC keeping to the school food budget while doing so. Not only was the food great, but the kids seemed to enjoy it and eat it. Other shows have shown that kids are not as particular about food as we think. Several families within mine have fed their kids basically what they eat (good foods too) with little trouble. It worked because they started it at an early age and stayed consistent as to their food rules (such as making sure kids can select from what is offered but must then eat all they take, including kids in the cooking routine, insisting they try at least a bite of something new, etc.).

I know this works because my sister and I were raised that way and all of our children are raising theirs similarly. The biggest problem for them is the school lunch which frequently includes foods that are otherwise not served in the house with an emphasis on protein and fat - often no vegetables included (the school consideres french fies and ketchup vegetable servings). Most of the food is pre-made, low quality, US surplus that need only a deep fryer and a microwave to prepare.

We all really need to get involved with this problem, There are many ways to provide nurticious food for our kids and change an entire generation's appoach to eating. One that will hopefully contue as the model far into the future.

By: | Aug 27, 2010 05:06 PM | Permalink
Totally awesome article; thank you! Everyone needs to read this. We need to be much more nutrient-conscious in this country. You lay it out so clearly and in an easy-to-understand way. Thanks again.

By: Ann Iijima | Aug 27, 2010 04:30 PM | Permalink
This was a nice, concise description of what we all should be eating. Thanks! We followed this, more or less, throughout our now 21-year-old son's childhood. It was very interesting to see how much weight he put on as soon as he moved in with friends with a more "conventional" diet. He said that he wants to clean up his eating habits & hopes to convert his friends, as well.


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