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For kids’ food, think super healthy — not super size

Author Eric Schlosser of "Fast Food Nation" talks to Epicurious about how to keep kids healthy and happy at lunchtime.
/ Source: Epicurious

With Americans — and their kids — super sizing themselves, and with one in five public schools in America offering brand-name fast food in the school cafeterias, we are reaching a health crisis. It is particularly alarming in the youngest and most vulnerable segment, our children.

"Since the early 1970s the rate of obesity among adult Americans has risen by 50 percent," writes Schlosser. "Among preschoolers it has doubled. And among children aged six to 11 it has tripled."

Schlosser was so concerned that he set out to teach kids directly how to make the right food choices. "Chew on This," his latest book, is a kid version of his famous exposé, "Fast Food Nation."

But parents play the most crucial role. "Be active and aware of your children's eating habits before it's too late," Schlosser urges.

He notes that a child who is obese at age 13 has 90 percent odds of being obese in his mid-30s.

While parents can encourage their children to develop healthy attitudes toward eating by sitting down to family dinner every night and teaching them about food, Schlosser admits that peer pressure and commercial messages are tough to compete with: "People are really going to have to work to change what's going on outside the home," he says. "There's constant bombardment from mass culture." He claims that on average a child watches three hours of junk-food ads on TV every week, and that "fast-food chains spend $3 billion a year on television ads." They also sponsor "playlands," hand out toys, and offer free materials to schools in an effort to win over the youth market, he says.

Schlosser believes that getting rid of soda and fast food in schools is crucial. "Food companies know that parents are obligated to send their children to school, and the schools desperately need the money," he says. "They are making children pay for their own education and pay for it with their health. I'd rather see a Gap in every high school than a Taco Bell or McDonald's."

Children should be informed about what goes into fast food, who makes it, the true costs of the food, and how it is marketed, Schlosser maintains. Then they can decide if they want to buy it. "Every dollar that you spend on food is a vote," he writes in "Chew on This."

Schlosser is encouraged by projects such as Jamie Oliver's campaign to improve the quality of school lunches in Britain, and Alice Waters's Edible Schoolyard in California.

"While other famous chefs are opening chain restaurants and putting their names on frozen meals, Alice is trying to protect the environment, support independent farmers, and change the way American children think about food," he writes.

So how can parents step up and take charge of their children's lunchtime diet?

Packing a healthy lunch for your child is one way to avoid unhealthy cafeteria food, says Schlosser, though he admits that it can be tricky finding a nutritious option that will compete with the lure of the fast food being eaten by other children. "There are all kinds of ways to make healthy meals that taste good, but they have to be compelling.

"In our household we've never been puritanical about food," he adds. "We enjoy major lapses, but always with foods made from real ingredients rather than industrial ones, such as brownies made with real butter rather than out of a box."

His own kids' favorite lunchbox treat? "Sweet, delicious fresh fruit."

Like Eric Schlosser, nutritionist Dana Lilienthal believes that good nutrition begins at home. And there's no better way to foster this, says Lilienthal, than to prepare lunch for (or, better yet, with) your children. "A bagged lunch is always better than the school lunch," she says. "It gives you more control over what your children are eating."

Some kids may ask for peanut butter and jelly every day for six weeks, but try not to fall in a brown bag rut. "There are no rules when it comes to lunch," says Lilienthal. "Cereal with milk, baked potatoes, cold pizza, leftover dinner — pack whatever your children like to eat." Lilienthal offers these tips for preparing lunches:

Know what your children like to eat
If you get children involved in the food shopping and preparation of their lunch, they are more likely to eat a healthy lunch.

Make it look good
Children, as well as adults, eat with their eyes first. And remember to pack up all that delicious food in a lunchbox they like to carry.

Find out your child's schedule for the day If there is snack time, pack food that will give them energy to make it through the rest of the day: half a sandwich, peanut-butter-filled pretzels, or fresh fruit.

Aim for two to three different food groups at lunch
Just add vegetables to a sandwich or tuck in a fruit as a snack.

Pack properlyYou don't want a mushy sandwich, bruised fruit, or crumbled snacks. Use small containers, sandwich bags, and good plastic wrap.

Keep food at the proper temperatureUse blue ice, special containers, or a thermos.

Make healthy snacks
They usually get eaten first, but don't totally eliminate fat and sugar, because you don't want constant lunch-trading.

Avoid snacks made with trans fatsMake drinks countTry smoothies or protein drinks instead of 10-percent-juice drinks, and don't forget water.

Use a thermos for soups, stews, and other hot foods

Snack tipsThese snacks are low in fat and high in nutrients, says Lilienthal, so feel free to add them to lunch:

  • Red, orange, yellow, and green pepper strips
  • Celery or carrots with peanut butter
  • Yogurt or smoothies that can be put in a thermos
  • Homemade gorp ("good old raisins and peanuts") or trail mix
  • Peanut-butter-filled pretzels
  • Whole-wheat bagel, whole-wheat pita, or graham crackers with nut butter
  • Peanut butter and banana on whole-wheat bread (Lilienthal's personal favorite!)
  • Fruit, vegetable, or cheese kebabs
  • Fruit salad with yogurt or cottage cheese
  • Whole fruits, such as apples, peaches, and bananas
  • Salads (toss your child's favorite veggies together and add a dressing)
  • Guacamole dip with blue corn chips
  • Turkey with lettuce and tomato in a pita pocket
  • Homemade soups, stews, or chili (in a wide-mouthed thermos)
  • Chocolate-covered almonds