Feeding Healthy Kids, one parent’s guide

Kids breakfast porridge with fruits and nuts

By Kelly Egolf, Founder of Verde Food Company and mother of a child, with multiple food allergies

I have a secret to share.  I have a hard time getting my kids to eat healthy foods.  Okay, I admit that I probably set a ridiculously high bar (or so my husband says), but it’s still a lot of effort.

It’s been particularly challenging since we lost their grandmother, who was very present in our lives.  I could rely on her good judgment to serve roasted sweet potatoes, Brussel sprouts, and organic chicken, a truly mom-approved dinner. She also had a remarkable ability to strategically place Ore Ida tater tots almost within reach until the real veggies were gone.

Without Mimi, we have to rely more on babysitters and I find myself repeating the same menu guidelines to a generation of twenty-somethings, who don’t know very much about nutrition. I decided to write it all down once and for all. With Mother’s day around the corner, I thought I’d share it with all you marvelous moms, devoted dads, and yes, the befuddled babysitters, too.

I’m not a dietician or nutritionist and no one should mistake this post for medical advice.  It’s just one mom’s approach to the day’s menu for her own kids.

Americans are protein-obsessed and we’re doing ourselves and our children a tremendous disservice by pushing meat, dairy, and eggs with every meal.  Adults should get around 50g of protein per day (about 7oz) but we’re eating nearly twice the average recommended protein.  Endurance athletes and serious weight-lifters need 80-100g of protein per day, so most of us don’t need that whey protein shake for breakfast and kids don’t need as much protein, either.

Consuming too much protein has negative impacts on the body.  First, it contributes to obesity.  High protein foods are also high-calorie foods.  If you eat more than you need or more than 30g (4oz) in one sitting, it will be converted into fat.  Second, excess protein must be broken down by the kidneys, which increases water loss and dehydration.  With as hard as it is to get my kids to drink enough water, I don’t want to undermine myself by giving too much protein.  Third, excessive protein triggers the loss of essential calcium, which is critical to childhood development of strong bones.

3oz of Protein for a child under 9
Animal protein: 1 egg (1oz) and 1 medium-sized chicken drumstick (2oz)
Vegetarian: 1 cup lentil soup (2oz) and 2 tablespoons of sunflower seed butter (1oz)

5oz of Protein for a child over 9
Animal protein: 1 cup plain Greek yogurt (2oz) and 1 small chicken breast half (3oz)
Vegetarian: ½ cup oatmeal cooked with pea-protein milk (1oz), ¼ cup roasted chickpeas (1oz), 1 cup pinto beans (2oz), and 12 almonds (1oz)

This is the easiest goal to meet and I don’t mind exceeding it. If my kids are hungry and need a quick snack, I’d rather they eat two apples a day than reach for a processed snack with added sugar. And I don’t count dried fruit as a fruit serving at all.

3 servings of fruit per day
1 small apple
1 banana
½ cup of berries

The vast majority of American adults (87%) fail to eat enough vegetables every day and so do our children.  Fresh vegetables are less convenient for our fast-paced lifestyle, but it’s worth planning ahead and building in a little prep time each night.  If you have a kid, with a smaller appetite, choosing veggies wisely can help meet calcium and protein goals simultaneously.

In our house, we prepare lunch boxes at night using leftovers from dinner.  We roast vegetables in large batches a couple of nights a week.  We also lightly steam vegetables like broccoli or green beans.  Served cold the next day in lunch boxes, they are easier to digest than raw vegetables and are great for dipping in Dijon mustard.  My other favorite trick is to serve vegetables as an appetizer when my kids are hungriest.  Sliced cucumber, bell peppers, and carrots with hummus are my go-to, giving me peace and quiet to finish making a great meal for us all.

4-5 servings of vegetables per day
1- 1½ cups of mixed veggies for lunch
1 cup of raw veggies with hummus as either after-school or pre-dinner snack
1 ½ cups of green salad at dinner
1 cup of steamed or roasted veggies at dinner (and make extra for the next day’s lunch)

Whole Grains
For adults with digestive disorders, choosing a grain-free diet may be a good idea, however most of us should be getting some whole grains every day – especially our children.  Not all grains are created equal and it pays to aim for less processed grains that can serve double duty.  For example, a serving of oatmeal will also help meet protein needs and a serving of quinoa provides 10% of a child’s daily calcium.  Conventional pasta or white bread do not contain whole grains, so I replace them with pasta made of alternative grains like lentils and organic whole wheat bread speckled with lots of brown flecks.

6oz of whole grains per day
1 cup cooked oatmeal (2oz)
2 slices of cracked wheat bread (2oz)
3 cups of popped popcorn (1oz)
½ cup of quinoa (1oz)

I once got into an argument with a pediatrician, who just wouldn’t accept that I don’t make my daughters drink milk.  She didn’t think it was possible to get enough calcium from a plant-based diet.  It’s true, that getting calcium without dairy is hard work, but calcium can be found in nuts, seed, beans and greens.  Here is a good list from the University of Rochester Medical College, if reducing dairy is important to you, too.

1,000-1,300mg of calcium per day (dairy-based)
1 cup 2% milk (300mg)
6oz cup of fruit yogurt (300mg)
2 slices of cheese (400mg)

The above menu has about 500 calories and 16g of saturated fat (the bad kind).  For a 10-year old child, that’s about 1/3 of daily recommended calories.  It also more than the maximum limit of saturated fat for an adult, according to the American Heart Association.

1,000-1,300mg of calcium per day (no dairy)
1 cup oatmeal cooked in non-dairy milk (300mg) with ½ tablespoon of blackstrap molasses (100mg)
¼ cup tofu (225mg)
1 cup cooked beans with fresh parsley (150mg)
1 cup cooked kale or collard greens (250mg)
¼ cup of dried figs (75mg)

Heart-Healthy Fats
Too much fat is bad, especially when it is saturated- and trans-fat.  Healthy fats, however, are an essential element of a balanced diet.  They are key to brain health and a healthy balance of hormones.  (Take note, you parents of pre-teens!)  In fact, 60% of the brain is made up of fat, mostly omega-3s.  I try to include heart-healthy fats in my children’s breakfast to wake up their brains and prepare them for a successful day of learning at school.

55g of fat per day
½ avocado (15g)
1 egg (5g)
2 tablespoons nut butter (16g)
2 tablespoons sunflower seeds (9g)
1 tablespoon oil/vinegar salad dressing (8g)

Water or Herbal Tea
Last, but not least, is water.  Like fat, hydration is critical for brain function and children should be encouraged to drink water all day long at school, not just at snack or meal times.  Kids are not drinking enough water and most show signs of mild dehydration every day.  The conventional classroom often limits access to water during the day, so I like to get teachers on board for this one.

6-8 cups of water per day
Give ½ lemon, freshly juiced with 8oz of warm water at breakfast to wake sleepy children.
Serve 8oz of water with every meal and treat it as part of the meal.  Require an empty glass before leaving the table.
Make a soda-like treat with sparkling water and a splash of fruit juice.
Keep iced herbal tea in the fridge, or offer hot tea with a touch of honey on cold days.

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