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Are your kids supermarket smart?

How to make the grocery store a classroom for good nutrition
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Supermarkets can be a virtual playground for kids and they generally don’t head for the healthy fare if given a choice. However, as a parent and teacher, you can make your grocery store a classroom for good nutrition and shopping together can become an opportunity to teach your kids to be healthy eaters. On NBC’s “Today” show, syndicated columnist and “Today” show contributor, Phil Lempert shares some advice to help you teach your kids to be supermarket smart.

MOST BABY BOOMERS grew up in an era of “new” foods: frozen meals, sugar-laden snacks, and lots of preservatives. Your Mom urged you to “clean your plate” under the threat of sending your food to hungry children in far away lands if you didn’t.

GenXers have had a different experience, and were forced to fend for themselves as many of them grew up “latch-key,” in homes where parents were at work and they made their own decisions at mealtimes. Today, it is estimated by the American Academy of Pediatrics that one in four children, under the age of 12, are considered overweight or obese; that’s an increase of 50 percent in the last 30 years. It’s a bad combination of diet, exercise and lifestyle that has created this situation; only about one percent of all obesity in children is caused by a hormonal problem or genetic disorder.

Child obesity increases risks in adulthood of heart disease, diabetes, osteoarthritis, and many other health problems. Food is used for a lot more than just nutrition when it comes to raising kids. Unfortunately, it is also used both as a reward and as a way to keep noisy children quiet or busy — both at home and in the supermarket. Most parents transfer their eating habits and their food choices to the next generation, knowingly or not, and without giving much thought to the “knowledge” they are passing on. That’s gotta stop; if we care about the health of future generations.

The easiest way to teach and learn (no matter how old you are) about good nutrition and healthy eating is in the supermarket. With an average of over 27,000 products lining the shelves, it’s the perfect combination of schoolroom and laboratory. Don’t attempt to put all of these ideas into practice on your next trip. Take baby steps, habits (yours especially) will not change over night.

LET’S DO SOME SMART KIDS SHOPPING Shopping together, as a family may make you cringe at the thought — but the reality is that the activity itself will do more to help lay a strong and healthful foundation. Don’t ever force a trip to the supermarket when you, or the kids, are hungry, cranky or tired — no one wins on that experience.

The first stop in most supermarkets is the produce department — and it is a virtual, and healthful, playground for kids. They love the colors, aromas and the non-linear layouts. It’s the department that seems like it was designed for kids. Put them in charge of selecting a new fruit or vegetable on each shopping trip. It’s their choice — with no boundaries. Make it an adventure; but don’t let them run around aimlessly, stay by their side.

Let them make their selection for whatever reasons they share — color, shape strangeness, whatever. Introduce them to the produce manager and have the manager teach your kids all about that particular produce item. Have your kids prepare the food at home, serve it, and tell the rest of the family about the history, tastes, and health profile of that product.

With over 400 items in the produce department these days, it’ll be easy to introduce them to a wide variety of healthy offerings and get them started on a diet that is rich in fruits and vegetables. Make produce part of everyday eating as well as “special” using them as desserts in lunch boxes and for special occasions and treats.

Kids, like adults, want to be respected. Taking a few minutes and putting them in charge of produce will go a long way to make them feel good and be in a good mood to shop the rest of the store.

Going up and down the aisles can be a frightful nightmare for any parent, especially when it comes to those products that have been advertised to kids. And especially in those aisles that have candies on one side and cereals on the other. The odds are against you.

Candies, sugar-laden cereals, and non-nutritive beverages spend billions of dollars to advertise to your kids. Their goal is to get their brand entrenched in your kids’ brains as early as they can. Your goal is to teach them the difference between products.

One of the most effective tools parents have, is the nutritional label on every package in the store.

There is no doubt that television ads will influence your kid’s choices in the store. Be a good communicator, do not immediately dismiss their selection. Have them take the product off the shelf and compare it — nutritionally speaking — to a more healthful alternative. While they might not understand each nutrient’s value, going down the list side by side will help teach them to read and compare.

Compare breakfast cereals first by showing them the differences on the front of the packages. Get past the latest animated movie character, animal, captain, or stone age characters as quick as you can. Explain the differences between the words on the front: “no added sugars”, “no preservatives”, “grown without GMOs” and compare them with the marketing messages that may appear more prominently.

Next, review the nutritional panels together. Compare calories and fat, but don’t forget the fiber, calcium, vitamins, and most importantly — the sugars. Explain that sometimes more is better (like calcium and fiber) and other times less is better (calories, fat and sugars.)

Look at the ingredient statement and show your kids the raw ingredients. Being visual with kids is more important than the words. If they think the food looks good, they’ll eat it; so it is important to make them part of the process of buying and preparing.

Kids love to cook — or more accurately, play in the kitchen. Have them help you make healthier foods. For example, pass on the prepackaged rice mixtures and have them help you select what veggies and spices to make your own. When cooking, always ask them what a particular ingredient’s effect will have on the food; if they don’t know tell them — you’ll be surprised just how much they’ll remember.

On different shopping trips, introduce them to the meat, seafood, bakery, and deli managers. They love teaching and sharing knowledge. Have them explain the differences between raw materials and preparation techniques. Show your own interest as well; your kids will look to your attention as a model for their behavior. Be sure to include a food safety discussion using the label on all meat and poultry packages as a guide. Be considerate and use these “food professors” in off-peak shopping times — they will give your kids (and you) a higher quality education.

Spend time together to find substitutes for foods that taste good. Instead of frozen sugary ice pops — take fresh watermelon, blend into a slush, and freeze. Choose cookies and cakes that have less sugar or sweetened with fruit juices. Do your own family “taste tests” to choose which products are best. Nutrition is a new science, and right around the corner is a new generation of foods that are healthier, designed to cure disease, easier to prepare and taste better. Teaching your kids how to select their foods and read labels will give them the tools they need to eat a healthier diet. Teaching them that the supermarket experience is a positive one is critical.

Most important, be sure they become a partner with you in the foods they eat; let them experiment and try new healthy combinations. Laurie, a parent of three (ages 9,6 and 2) shared with me her kids’ all-vegetarian recipe for a

peanut butter and spaghetti omelet they often make and eat together. It’s one of those foods she has learned to love.

Phil Lempert, the Supermarket Guru®, analyzes the food marketing industry to keep consumers up-to-date about cutting-edge marketing trends. He is a regular “Today” show contributor, columnist for the Los Angeles Times, and host of Shopping Smart of the WOR Radio Network. For more food and health information, you can check out Phil’s Web site at: