We've all been at fault of giving in to the guilty pleasures of unhealthy food. Quite simply, they taste good. But making those foods a regular part of any diet can have lasting harmful effects. The good news is that most kid-favorite comfort foods, such as mac 'n cheese, grilled cheese sandwiches, hot dogs, french fries and pizza can be easily adapted into healthier versions. Choose whole wheat or whole grain pasta for macaroni and cheese and use a cheese that is low in sodium and contains no artificial flavors or colors. Grilled cheese sandwiches can be baked with whole grain bread and healthy cheeses that contain no artificial additives but still contain the gooey goodness of your child's favorite lunch treat.
"There are many healthy alternatives to your toddler's favorite treats on the market today," explains nutritionist Christina Schmidt, M.S., (author of The Toddler Bistro: Child-Approved Recipes and Expert Nutrition Advice for the Toddler Years)
"You just have to know where to find them. Hot dog, sausage and deli meat alternatives can be found in brands such as Shelton's, Organic Prairie, Lightlife, Applewood Farms, Healthy Choice and Dietstel Turkey. The Annie's brand makes a variety of healthy mac 'n cheese mixes if for busy moms who need a short cut. There are also plenty of low fat and vegan alternatives for you to choose from as well. Just be sure you read the labels carefully to make sure the sodium content is not more than 140 mg per serving in whatever food you choose."
French fries and pizza are other favorites that are easy to swap for healthier versions. You can make your own fries by slicing potatoes or sweet potatoes into fry shapes, tossing in a little olive or canola oil and roasting them on a baking sheet at about 400 degrees for about 5 to 10 minutes on each side. Sweet potatoes offer the added benefit of high vitamin A, vitamin C, potassium and vitamin B's. If your kid craves pizza, invite her to get in on the action. She will enjoy placing toppings and rolling out the dough. For a quick prep, you can buy premade whole wheat pizza dough at the market and roll it out into a thin crust. Top with a low sodium pizza sauce and have your little kitchen helpers sprinkle on some low fat mozzarella cheese. Choose your healthy toppings, bake and serve! Avoid the pepperoni, sausage, extra cheese, deep dish and white crust and you have a healthy pizza dish!
Your children learn a lot from you, and they are picking up on your habits whether your realize it or not. They look to your behaviors and habits to know how to act, so make sure you are setting a healthy example. Eat healthy foods in front of your children and when you're out at a restaurant or buffet, make good choices and help them to learn how to fill their own plates with a balanced meal. Tiny tots love to be just like their mom or dad, and if they notice that you're eating your fruits and veggies, they'll want to get in on the action too! If you're only sipping on coffee for breakfast as you're begging your child to fill his belly with that bowl of nutritious oatmeal, you're not setting a good example for him. Remember that children, while not always at first, do mimic the behaviors of their parents, so start eating healthy now. Those little eyes are watching!
"Now is the time when you can make the most difference in your toddler's eating behavior," says Schmidt. "Studies have shown that food preferences are shaped between the ages of two and three. Be a role model for healthy eating and manners in front of your toddler. Even if the results are not immediate, being a role model will pay off in the long run!"
Americans eat a lot of sugar. In the United States, the average intake of sugar for everyone ages two and older is 20.5 teaspoons a day! In a nation where diabetes and obesity are such prevalent issues, parents need to learn how to start skimming some sugar from their children's diets by checking food labels and offering up healthier options to their children. While some sugar intake is inevitable, its your job to moderate how much and how often they eat sugar, and to make a concerted effort to cut back where you can. And sugar's not the only culprit—salt can be a big problem, too.
"If you're inclined to add a dash of salt to your child's plate, take a step back and ask yourself if it's really necessary," suggests Schmidt. "We already get plenty of salt naturally in our diets, so do your best to keep that shaker off the table! Think about the salt content of the food before you add more and taste the food to see if it really needs a sprinkle or two. Try to keep the sodium content down by using half of the salt called for in recipes and by choosing food brands that offer low salt and sodium varieties. Remember that fast foods and processed foods are salt magnets, so limiting your toddler's salt intake is a must!"
After taking salt and sugar intake into consideration, make sure all spices are introduced slowly to your toddler, adds Schmidt. Children have more taste buds than adults and therefore have an increased sensitivity to flavors. Depending on family or cultural customs, toddlers' preferences for spices will vary, but it's best to err on the side of caution and take it slow when adding spices to your child's food.
"It's never too early, or too late to start introducing nutritious and healthy foods to your toddler," concludes Schmidt. "By working with your child and introducing that healthy variety of foods today, you're helping him get the nutrients that he needs to grow a healthy body. Remember, you really are what you eat so make this year the year that you resolve to set an example for your child by eating healthier foods yourself and by encouraging your child to make better choices. These healthy habits will last him his whole life through."
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