Before natural-foods dietitian Patti Tvert Milligan spoke to her son’s fourth-grade class about healthful eating, he had one simple request: Don’t be boring.
Milligan obeyed. She collaborated with her son Reilly, then 10, on a children’s book that celebrates organic gardening, fresh vegetables and fruits. Milligan let Shirley, their book’s vegetable-munching heroine, tout the taste and benefits of fresh sweet peas, eggplant, purple carrots and more.
“Reilly was right. Kids don’t want to be lectured to about healthy eating,” she says. “They will listen better to their peers, and Shirley is one of them.”
Research backs Milligan’s belief that children respond best to positive health messages from their peers. In “Why Is Shirley Unusual?” the heroine introduces her world of fresh produce and gardening to a schoolkid who’s mocked by classmates because of his weight. He falls in love with digging in the dirt and trades the high-fat, high-sugar processed foods in his lunchbox for their garden harvest.
Ten years after crafting that story, Milligan recently published the book she and her son crafted. The Fountain Hills nutritionist has pledged all proceeds from “Why Is Shirley Unusual?” to Be Memorable, her non-profit dedicated to planting schoolyard gardens nationwide.
Like many health experts, Milligan worries about parents short-shifting the importance of healthy diets. Her arguments are convincing: Kids need crucial nutrients for physical and emotional development, such as omega-3 fatty acids for a healthy immune system and proper brain development. A healthful diet also helps prevents obesity, which is blamed for a multitude of problems — from diabetes to weak immune systems that make kids vulnerable to colds and flu.
What we eat as children also can dictate how healthy we are as adults.
“Sometimes I think parents make feeding their children way too complicated,” said Milligan, who also is director of nutrition for Tignum, an international consulting firm that engineers programs for business executives to gain energy, mental agility and stamina. “With the right attitude and effort, it’s really not that difficult. Teaching your child to eat healthy is one of the best gifts you can give.”
The first step is to ban judgment by labeling food either good or bad. Instead, she suggests dividing food into two categories — growing and celebrating. The spinach for dinner is for growing, the cake at a birthday party for celebrating. As an added incentive, tie the “growing” foods to a child’s favorite superhero or athlete. Would soccer great Mia Hamm eat doughnuts every day for breakfast?
Healthful eating is about whole foods and pure flavors, Milligan explains. Let nature, not food factories, produce most of what you feed children. Trade empty calories for nutrient-dense foods. And present food joyfully to kids by making eating an adventure.
Here are 10 ways to jumpstart the New Year with a healthful family diet:
• Color their plate healthy. Too many children eat a diet of bland-colored foods: white bread, french fries, chicken nuggets, corn dogs, macaroni and cheese. Encouraging kids to eat a rainbow of colored fruits and vegetables goes a long way toward a well-rounded diet that provides vitamins, minerals and disease-fighting antioxidants. Each color — yellow, green, red and purple — provides a different benefit. Children are more likely to buy into the message to eat different colors. It’s a marketing ploy that works.
• Nix the “No thanks.” Require kids to take at least one bite. Also, introduce foods more than once. Research consistently finds that kids need to be presented with unknown foods from eight to 15 times before they accept them.
• Facilitate smart snacking. Avoid processed snacks, which typically are loaded in fats, calories, sugars and salts. Instead, serve fresh and dried fruits, whole-grain cereals, nuts, nut butters, unsweetened yogurt, vegetable sticks and popcorn. And avoid indiscriminate snacking. If there’s always food in their bodies, they will never learn what it feels like to be full. Ban snacks closer than two hours before dinner. A hungrier kid is more willing to eat a meal — and to try something new.
• Promote healthy tummies. Up to 70 percent of the body’s immune system lives in the gastrointestinal tract, or gut. A gut out of whack can lead to headaches, fatigue, allergies, depression, upset stomach and a host of other illnesses. One cause of an unhealthy gut is a diet full of processed foods, antibiotics, food dyes and preservatives. Incorporate more gut-healthy foods; fermented foods loaded with probiotics — live bacteria that occur in foods such as live-cultured yogurt, pickles, kimchi, miso and tempeh — are best. They help maintain the natural balance of microorganisms in the digestive tract.
• Follow the 80-20 rule. Perfection is not the goal. Make sure that 80 percent of what kids eat is healthful. For the remaining 20 percent, they can eat whatever they want.
• Institute family meals. Too many time-crunched American families report eating a single meal together fewer than five days a week. Change that by carving out at least an hour a day to prepare and eat a meal together. Decades of research show that children who eat regular meals with families are healthier, eat more fruits and vegetables and less soda and fried foods. They also are less likely to be obese, depressed or substance abusers. Food has kept families connected for centuries.
• Read labels. There’s no shortage of foods with labels promising health benefits. Teach children to be skeptical. For example, “all natural” implies healthful, but sugar, salt and a host of other ingredients are natural but not healthy. Avoid such ingredients as high-fructose corn syrup and packages with ingredient lists that read like a chemistry experiment. Also, pay attention to calories, important nutrients, vitamins, fiber content and serving sizes. Often, even a small package is more than a single serving.
• Let kids help. Work with children to plant a backyard garden. Bring them to the grocery, or better yet, to one of the Valley’s farmers markets. Encourage them to select new vegetables or fruits to try. Once home, include the kids in turning the harvest into meals. Studies show that kids are more likely to eat foods they help buy or prepare.
• Teach portion sizes. Today’s youth are growing up in a super-size culture. Much of what kids eat is two- to three-times bigger than a healthy portion, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, based in Washington, D.C. Teach your children to eat the right amount by using their hands as guides. A fruit serving fits in the palm of one hand, vegetables in the palm of two hands. A portion of chicken, fish, beef or other protein is the size and width of their palm. Starchy carbohydrates, such as pasta, potatoes and rice, are the size of their fist. A serving of fat, including peanut butter, olive oil or butter, is half a thumb.
• Boycott unhealthy kids menus. When dining out, steer clear of kids menus that typically include fried-chicken strips, hot dogs, mac and cheese, burgers and pizza. Instead, split or share adult entrees, or encourage them to order a healthful appetizer, such as hummus and vegetables. Also, be a role model when ordering. Avoid sugary drinks, fried foods or those drenched in sauces and cheese.