My son’s preschool held a picnic last week, and each family brought a snack to share with the other kids. Of the seven snacks offered, four were from the cookie/cracker family, and one was kettle corn; the other two snacks were strawberries and sliced cheese. I told myself I was overreacting when I silently balked at the array of high-sugar, low-fiber, highly processed carbs (animal crackers, Teddy Grahams, Wheat Thins) and lack of filling foods. But then two things happened: 1) a teacher opened a container of baby carrots for herself, and half the kids clamored for them! and 2) after eating 2 slices of cheese and a plateful of everything else, my son returned to the table, hungry again, 30 minutes later. I felt vindicated… then worried. Did the other parents realize the impact of these “empty” snacks?
As an avid (compulsive? rabid?) label-reader, I’m very thoughtful about what I feed my family. And maybe spending time at Fed Up With Lunch, and reading about the nutritional travesties our children are fed as early as preschool, has made me extra-sensitive to children’s nutrition lately. Do other parents get this riled up about their kids’ food? I believe most parents care about what their kids eat. But I bet many parents aren’t aware of the ill effects that certain choices can have. So what kind of food will my son be eating when the parents take turns providing snacks for preschool this year?
This is an awareness issue, and we have to get the word out. I’m no nutritionist, but I’ve put a lot of research and thought into a food policy; I want to share it to help parents think about snacks in a new way! My philosophy employs two simple principles: avoid ingredients that are unnecessary or potentially harmful, and strive for balance. Here are my guidelines, and because education is key, I’ve included why each one is so important.
- Avoid high-fructose corn syrup. This recent Princeton study concludes that HFCS promotes more weight gain than sugar, and plenty of articles contend that it prevents us from feeling satisfied so we eat more. (Of course there’s some debate about these accusations, but I’ve seen enough to convince me that it’s not worth the risk.)
- Avoid artificial colors and flavors. They are linked to ADHD and behavior problems in children, not to mention cancer. The CSPI (Center for Science in the Public Interest) has called on the FDA to ban several common dyes for those reasons.
- Limit hydrogenated oils. An item that has “0g” of trans fat can actually have up to 0.5g of trans fat per serving. Trans fats are linked to heart disease, diabetes, and other health issues; this WebMD article states that consumption should be strictly limited.
- Limit excessive sugar and fat. Treats should be a treat, ideally offered at the discretion of the parents, not a mainstay of preschool snack time. (I’m not going to be a stickler about birthday cupcakes, though. A few celebratory cupcakes over the course of the year is fine with me!) And of course, sweetened foods should be avoided when an appealing unsweetened variety is available, as with peanut butter and applesauce.
- “Grains” or “carbs” (bread, crackers, pasta) should have fiber. Otherwise they are just an insulin spike — and sugar crash — waiting to happen, and they aren’t filling at all.
- Go organic for “dirty dozen” produce. The dirty dozen are the twelve fruits and vegetables with the worst pesticide contamination, which carries a host of health risks.
- Strive for balance. A snack isn’t a pile of crackers. It might be a few crackers with a slice of cheese or a protein, plus some veggies or fruit. [Note: Veggie Straws are not veggies, and juice is not a fruit.] Though obsolete, the four food groups (fruit/veg, protein, grain, dairy) come in handy when ensuring a balanced meal or snack; this blog post has some great suggestions for achieving balance in a kid’s lunch.
Of course every family is different. Most families have budget considerations. Some only have access to one grocery store with limited options. Some kids might require extra calories, so their parents would rather have them eating “junk” than nothing; other kids are “problem feeders.” But even applying a few of these guidelines can create more wholesome and satisfying preschool snacktimes, and begin to teach our kids (and parents) to make healthier choices.
The scary and most frustrating thing to me is the number of popular, mass-market foods that violate these guidelines. Many parents seem to trust these national brands, but they are actually the worst culprits! A few examples of common preschool snacks:
- Teddy Grahams: Partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil. Chocolate variety contains artificial flavor.
- Yoplait Go-gurt: HFCS and artificial flavor.
- Honey Maid Grahams: Partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil, HFCS, and artificial flavor.
- Ritz Crackers: Partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil and HFCS.
- Mission Tortillas: Hydrogenated soybean oil.
- Ovaltine: Artificial flavor and artificial colors (Yellow 6, Red 40, and Blue 1). [Don't even get me started on their site comparing Ovaltine's vitamins and minerals to salmon and broccoli!]
- Kraft Macaroni & Cheese: Artificial colors (Yellow 5, Yellow 6).
- Goldfish Crackers: Partially hydrogenated vegetable shortening. (But at least the “Colors” variety is colored naturally!)
So what’s a parent to do? Start by reading labels: for example, Dannon Danimals yogurt is made with all natural ingredients, whereas Yoplait’s Go-Gurt has HFCS and artificial flavors (though sugar content is still an issue with both). If possible, shop at Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods, stores that are committed to products with only natural ingredients. If cost or availability is an issue, walk down your supermarket’s “organic” or “natural” aisle to check for specials; even Target carries brands like Kashi and frequently has sales and coupons for it. Ultimately, parents have to make the decision about what’s best for their families; I just want it to be an informed one. Especially if those parents are feeding my kid at school this year.
Please comment and let me know what you think of these guidelines! Are they realistic or too stringent? Nutritionists, I’d love your feedback, too!