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Components of Healthy Meals

Angela Oswalt Morelli , MSW, edited by Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Children over the age of two should typically be eating whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean protein, calcium-rich dairy products, and some oils every day. While junk foods like donuts, sugary breakfast cereals, cookies, ice cream, candy, fizzy drinks, fried potato chips, and other salty munchies seem to be what children beg for at the grocery store, they're not a healthy part of anyone's diet. These foods are high in saturated fats, salt, sugar, preservatives, and calories that negatively impact children's health and overall well-being. As well, they replace healthy foods that are higher in fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals necessary for healthy growth and development.

Whole Grain

healthy foodsThe term "whole grain" refers to cereals such as wheat, corn and rice which have been minimally processed after having been harvested. In general, foods that have the least amount of processing tend to be the healthiest. The case of wheat flour, used to make bread, is useful as a means of illustration. Most wheat flours are made out of wheat grains that have been processed so as to strip off the naturally occurring outer coating of bran and the oily wheat germ from which new wheat plants would sprout if the grains were used as seed. Removing these parts of the wheat makes for whiter looking flour which bakes lighter, and which has a longer shelf life. However, most of the nutrition in wheat is actually contained in the germ! As well, the outer bran coating provides essential fiber needed for healthy digestion and elimination! Removing these elements from wheat substantially reduces the nutritional quality of the resulting wheat flour. Thus, it is best to choose breads that are made with 100% whole grain wheat flour (or a substantial portion of that flour) if you are interested in providing nutritious bread to your family.

For many years, it was hard to find whole wheat breads and other products unless you were willing to shop at a specialty health food grocery store. However, these days, whole grain products have become trendy. You can now find whole-grain breads, crackers and pasta, and brown rice (which is unprocessed white rice with its bran still on) in regular supermarkets. Try to select bread products that are labeled "100% whole wheat" or similar. Other whole grain products may contain only a portion of flour that is actually whole grain.

During middle childhood, kids should consume 5 to 7 ounces of grain each day. At least half (if not more) of this grain should be whole grains so as to provide maximum nutritional value. One ounce of grain is equivalent to approximately one slice of bread, one cup of dry cereal, or one-half of a cup of cooked rice or pasta.

Fruits and Vegetables

There is a wide array of fruits and vegetables available in today's grocery stores and farmer's markets. Parents should focus on buying and cooking dark and vibrantly colored produce as these foods generally offer higher levels of vitamins and minerals and a better overall nutritional "bang for your buck" than less colorful choices. Dark green and orange vegetables such as kale, spinach, cabbage, broccoli, carrots and beets, and the broad array of fruits and berries available during the Summer months are especially nutritious. In order to best preserve the nutritional content of these fruits and vegetables, it is important to bring them to the table with only minimal processing and cooking having occurred. Serving fruit raw, and lightly steaming vegetables are good ways to maximize the nutritional content of these foods. A slightly less nutritious and more caloric but still reasonable method of preparing vegetables is to lightly stir-fry them in just a little olive oil with a little added sea salt and pepper. This method softens the vegetables and the added healthy fat and seasonings add significant flavor. Children of this age need approximately 1.5 to 3 cups of vegetables and .5 to 2 cups of fruit each day.

Many experts now believe that fruits and vegetables, which have been grown using organic farming methods are tastier and nutritionally superior to similar fruits and vegetables grown using conventional farming methods which emphasize the use of commercial fertilizers and poisonous toxic pesticides. Organic produce is more expensive than conventionally grown produce, but many families find a way to afford it so as to provide members with the best possible quality foods to eat.

Parents commonly complain that children will not eat vegetables. Here are several tips for helping to ensure that kids will eat their veggies:

First, parents should themselves make sure to eat their vegetables in full view of children. Parents who model a love of different fruits and vegetables by including these foods in their own meals influence their children to eat and enjoy these fruits and vegetables. Parents who instead visibly avoid eating vegetables or who make jokes or negative comments about vegetables teach kids to avoid them too.

Secondly, parents should get creative when selecting and serving vegetables. Choose fruits and vegetables of different colors, textures, and flavors (e.g., try one new item each week or so). As well, finding new ways to cook or to incorporate different foods into a weekly menu will also peak kids' interest. For example, making mashed sweet potatoes instead of mashed white potatoes creates the same texture with a much sweeter taste. If all else fails, it is possible to finely chop nutrient-dense veggies such as carrots, broccoli and bell peppers, and mix the result into meat balls, meatloaf or burgers, or use them as a filling for enchiladas or lasagna.

Parents should also monitor their children's intake of canned and other processed fruits and vegetables, as these are generally high in salt and sugar, put there to function as preservatives and flavor enhancers. It's always better that children eat fresh fruit and vegetables if that is an option. Fresh fruit tastes more like fruit (and less like sugar or salt) and, because it is less processed than canned alternatives, offers better nutritional value as well.

Many caregivers keep big bottles of fruit juice and sports drinks in the fridge for their kids to drink, thinking that these products are healthy alternatives to soda pop, punch or other soft drinks. This is not true! Sports drinks generally contain lots of sugar (often in the form of high fructose corn syrup), as do fruit drinks (which are not 100% fruit juice). Even 100% fruit drinks are unnecessarily high in calories that can quickly add up with just a few cups every day. Water (plain or dressed up with cucumber slices or lemon) is generally a better alternative beverage to offer to thirsty kids and family members.