Recent studies have shown that America's kids tend to turn the food guide pyramid upside down - eating more meats, fats, oils and sweets and less breads and cereals and fruits and vegetables than are recommended.
That probably comes as no surprise to a lot of parents, who know that what kids should eat and what they will eat are often very different things.Kids can be fussy eaters, and yet learning to eat a wide variety of foods is an important growing experience as well as a necessity for good health.
"Children need adequate nutrients to promote growth," says Georgia Lauritzen, food and nutrition specialist with the USU Extension Service. "We also now know about the preventive values of certain foods - that fruits and vegetables provide anti-oxidants and fiber that are important in prevention of cancer and heart diseases." Obesity, too, is becoming an increasing problem for youngsters and often carries over into adulthood. So, developing good eating habits early can make a lifelong difference in health.
But how can you encourage your children to eat healthy foods?
The most important factor, says Lauritzen, is for them to see their parents eating a variety of healthy food. "Kids do mimic their parents' actions and their parents' tastes."
Young kids also tend to like mild flavors, she says, things that are not too hot or too cold or too spicy.
"And they seem to have an inherent preference for sweets. I don't think it's harmful to have a certain amount of sweets as long as they are getting plenty of other nutritious food."
Ann Schrader, author of a book called "Healthy Yummies for Young Tummies: Nutritious Recipes for Children and Their Families" (Rutledge Hill Press, $14.95), offers some additional suggestions on cultivating kids' taste buds:
- Eat a wide variety of foods, and nothing in excess.
- Even if a recipe does not receive rave reviews the first time you try it, re-introduce it several times before giving up.
- Other than food, children love atmosphere: funny food names, candles, crazy and frequently changed place mats, different textures, lukewarm temperatures and brightly colored foods.
- Allowing your children to help in preparing foods they eat also adds greatly to the success of the meal. Often it's a case of pride over persnicketiness. Even the most reluctant eater will eat things he prepared himself.
Parents Magazine recently went in search of tried-and-true recipes that kids will eat.
What breakfast always brings your children back for more? the magazine asked its readers. Which lunch leaves them begging for seconds? Does one certain dinner drive them to devour every bite?
Readers responded with hundreds of enticing entries. The winning recipes are featured inside. You might want to try whipping up a few of them for your hungry youngsters.
Another area where parents can emphasize healthy eating is in lunch boxes. It's also a place where parents face the challenge of "if they don't like it, they won't eat it."
"Ideally, a box lunch should contain protein, fruit or vegetables, starch and a low-fat dairy product," says Jennifer Stack, registered dietician at New York University Medical Center. "But kids won't eat what they won't like, so parents may need to compromise. When they do, they need to make sure the compromise is on the side of healthy eating."
Stack offers these suggestions on packing lunches:
- Children tend to prefer predictable lunches, so pack foods that have been tried and well-received at home.
- Ask children what they want and be willing to accept some requests. But don't give in to all demands. If children stick to one type of sandwich during the week, vary weekend meal choices.
- Limit use of high-fat ingredients such as salami, bologna or cheese. If children insist on these foods, use lower-fat versions made with turkey or part skim milk cheese.
- Tuna or chicken salad made with low-fat mayonnaise in a pita pocket can be a good lunch selection. Mix in fruits or vegetables such as raisins, chopped apples or shredded carrots to add more fiber, flavor and nutrients.
- If children want chips, select those that are baked. Baked corn tortilla chips with a container of salsa can be an enjoyable low-fat treat.
- Vary what goes around a sandwich as much as what goes in it. Pita, bread sticks, whole-wheat bread, bagels or English muffins can all make interesting sandwiches.
- Include small portions of fruits and vegetables. Small cans of fruit packed in their own juices can be a good choice, as long as kids are getting plenty of fresh fruit, too.
- For easy vegetable servings, select cherry tomatoes or baby carrots that can simply be rinsed and put into a plastic bag. To encourage children to eat these foods, include dips made with low-fat yogurt seasoned with a dip mix.
- Small containers of yogurt or low-fat chocolate milk can provide much-needed calcium, if children don't like plain milk. If juice is the drink of choice, select those made of 100 percent juice.
- Packing a treat with lunch can keep children from buying sweeter snacks. Good choices are low-fat fig bars, gingersnaps or vanilla wafers. Pretzels and popcorn also make good treats. Occasionally, higher-fat cookies can be used, but only send two.
- If all else fails, remember that high-fat lunches can be offset by serving low-fat breakfasts, dinners and snacks at home.
Sometimes, what kids will eat is a surprise to parents. A survey conducted by Campbells Marketing Research Department found that ice cream ranks first and eggplant ranks last of foods that children prefer. The eggplant is probably no surprise. However, when asked what foods their kids will eat, moms ranked ice cream at no. 21. Moms ranks milk, white bread and orange juice highest on the list; these were 24, 18 and 38 respectivly on the kids list.
The survey found that kids like chicken noodle soup more than peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but were served sandwiches more than soup. And kids say they like fruit anytime, but that their mothers don't serve it often.
According to the survey, youngsters "grow into" Mexican food, chicken pot pies and bagels; they grow out of American cheese, apple juice and bologna.
Another look at foods kids like to eat occurred when the U.N. Plaza-Park Hyatt hotel recently asked a group of children, ages 4 to 12, to pick their favorite foods. The goal was to help create a menu with healthy foods that kids really like to eat.
The youngsters were invited to taste a variety of kid-styled dishes prepared by the hotel's chef. Only those foods receiving a majority "thumbs-up" vote were selected for the hotel's kids' menu. The dishes winning approval: star-shaped baked sole with cornflake crumb topping, whole-wheat pizza, alphabet chicken noodle soup and grilled turkey burgers with french fries (using 65 percent less oil than conventional fries).
What the hotel thought was an obvious choice - a peanut butter, jelly and banana triple decker sandwich - was voted down. The kids also rejected a chicken hot dog.
APPLE PIE PANCAKES
From Cheryl Grenke, Atoka, Tenn.
Sweet, warm and wholesome, these chunky, fruit-filled pancakes are a big hit with the Grenkes. "Whenever I serve them, the kids think they're getting dessert," says Cheryl.
3/4 to 1 cup milk or buttermilk
1 cup whole-wheat flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1 medium apple, peeled, cored and cut into chunks
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
Beat the egg until fluffy. Add the milk, mix in the dry ingredients, then fold in the apple chunks. Grease a hot griddle with the oil. For each pancake, pour about 1/4 cup batter onto the griddle. Flip the pancakes when bubbles appear on top and the edges are dry. Cook until golden brown. Makes 6 to 8 medium-size pancakes.
EGGS IN A POCKET
From Elizabeth Millard-Dassonville, Sacramento, Calif.
Tucking this savory egg scramble into pita pockets makes it fun for kids to eat and easy for them to handle.
2 tablespoons margarine or butter
1/4 cup chopped green bell pepper
1 small tomato, seeded and chopped
8 large eggs
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 pitas, cut in half
1/4 cup grated cheddar or mozzarella cheese
Melt the margarine in a 10-inch skillet over medium heat. Saute the bell pepper until tender (about 3 minutes), then add the tomato and cook for 1 minute. Beat together the eggs, Worcestershire sauce and salt, and pour into the skillet. As the mixture begins to set, gently lift the cooked portions with a spatula and tilt the pan so that the uncooked egg runs to the bottom. Cook for 3 to 5 minutes, or until the eggs are cooked through but still moist. Spoon into pita pockets. Sprinkle the eggs with cheese. Serves 4.
HEARTY, HEALTHY PASTA SOUP
From Carolyn Ciarnella, Staten Island, N.Y.
"One hundred percent healthy - and delicious" is how Carolyn describes this soup. It's a great way to serve a complete, nutritious meal in a tasty one-dish lunch.
4 1/2 quarts low-sodium chicken broth
8-ounce package fresh, cheese-filled tortellini
3/4 pound fresh spinach leaves, washed, drained and chopped
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast, cooked and cut into half-inch chunks
1 small red bell pepper, stemmed, seeded and diced
2 cloves minced garlic
1 cup cooked white rice
Salt and pepper
Grated Parmesan cheese
In a large soup pot, bring the chicken broth to a boil. Add the tortellini and cook until al dente (4 to 6 minutes). Add the spinach, chicken, red pepper, garlic and rice. Cook over high heat approximately 5 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese. Makes 10 to 12 servings.
SWEET 'N' SPICY SLOPPY JOES
From Carol Sula, Warren, Mich.
This version of the quintessential kid-classic has just the right blend of sweet and savory flavors. "The children are so crazy about this recipe that I usually make extra and freeze the leftovers. That way it's handy whenever they're in the mood for it," Carol says.
3 pounds ground beef
3 medium onions, chopped
3 green bell peppers, diced
6 tablespoons prepared mustard
6 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
3 cups ketchup
3 tablespoons vinegar
3 teaspoons salt
Brown the ground beef in a skillet over medium heat. Add all of the remaining ingredients, reduce the heat, cover and simmer for 1 hour. Serves 8.
From Linora Gonzalez, Santa Maria, Calif.
If your chicken recipes are starting to taste tired, try this zesty version of the traditional Italian dish. "My daughter loves the little, cut-up bits of chicken," says Linora. "The potato and tomato flavors are her favorites."
6 tablespoons olive oil
6 chicken thighs, skinned
1/2 cup green bell pepper, chopped
3 cups small, raw potato chunks, peeled
1/2 teaspoon oregano
6-ounce can tomato paste
1/2 teaspoon minced garlic
2 tablespoons chopped onion
1 1/2 cups water or chicken stock
Place the oil in a deep skillet over medium heat, and lightly brown the chicken on all sides, turning periodically. Add all of the remaining ingredients. Reduce the heat, cover and simmer for 30 to 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. Serves 6.
SPINACH LASAGNA ROLL-UPS
From Nicola Knight, Fremont, Calif.
Lasagna with a twist. "And it's a great way to get kids to eat spinach," says Nicola.
1 tablespoon olive oil
10-ounce package chopped, frozen spinach
15-ounce container ricotta cheese
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon chopped, fresh Italian parsley
Salt and pepper
2 cups spaghetti sauce
8 lasagna noodles, cooked, drained and rinsed in cool water
1 1/4 cups grated mozzarella cheese
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Heat the oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add the spinach and cook, stirring, until heated through, about 4 minutes. Cool.
Combine the spinach, ricotta, Parmesan, egg and parsley in a large bowl. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Spread 1 cup of your family's favorite spaghetti sauce over the bottom of an 8-inch-square baking dish.
Pat dry one lasagna noodle with a paper towel, place it on a sheet of waxed paper, and spread it with about 1/3 cup of the ricotta mixture. Carefully roll up the noodle like a pinwheel, to enclose the filling. Arrange seam-side down in the baking dish.
Repeat with each noodle. Top all of the roll-ups with the remaining spaghetti sauce, and sprinkle with the mozzarella. Bake until bubbling hot and the cheese is fully melted, about 45 minutes. Serves 4 to 6.
CHEESY POTATO PANCAKES
From Satiya Buell, Cottage Grove, Wis.
Topped with warm applesauce, these mouthwatering potato pancakes make a great accompaniment to almost any meal. They're yummy enough to be served as a main dish as well.
4 cups shredded raw potatoes, about 2 to 2 1/2 pounds
3 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
2 tablespoons flour
1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese
2 tablespoons grated onion
Salt and pepper
1/3 cup butter or margarine
Drain the shredded potatoes thoroughly in a colander. Set aside. In a small mixing bowl, beat the cream cheese until fluffy. Beat in the eggs one at a time. Blend in the flour. Stir in the potatoes, cheese, onion, and salt and pepper to taste. Melt enough butter over medium heat to cover the bottom of a large skillet. Pour 1/4 cup of the potato mixture into the skillet for each pancake. Flatten and cook about 5 minutes. Turn and cook on the other side, adding more butter to prevent sticking, until crisp and golden. Place on a paper towel to absorb excess grease. Serve with applesauce. Serves 4.
RAISIN RACING CARS
From Gloria Barrow, Winter Haven, Fla.
A speedy, healthy, between-meal snack for kids over 4 years old. (The grapes and toothpicks are a choking hazard for younger children.)
2 celery stalks
8 tablespoons peanut butter or cream cheese
6 tablespoons raisins
Wash the celery stalks and cut each one into thirds. Fill each cut piece with peanut butter or cream cheese. Sprinkle raisins along the top. Push toothpicks through each end of the celery pieces. Attach a single grape to the end of each toothpick (4 grapes per celery stick) to make the wheels of the racing car. Makes 6.
From Shane Gladden, Murfreesboro, Tenn.
With almost no fat - and plenty of bone-building calcium - this slightly sweet and delightfully cool treat is a wholesome substitute for ice cream.
1 cup lowfat or nonfat yogurt, plain or fruit flavored
1 banana, sliced
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup fruit juice (or fruit chunks)
5 small paper cups
5 wooden sticks or plastic spoons
Combine the yogurt, banana, vanilla and fruit in a blender. Blend until the mixture is smooth, and pour into individual paper cups. Place in the freezer until half-frozen and insert a wooden stick or plastic spoon into each cup. Continue freezing until firm. To eat, turn the cup upside down and run hot water over it until the pop slips out. Makes 5.