For her lunch upgrade, Maggie Ward, MS, RD, LDN, and mom to a 4-year-old, did a retooling of classic macaroni and cheese. “Kids can eat ‘grown-up food’ and should,” says Ward, who is nutrition director at the UltraWellness Center in Lenox, Mass. “Unfortunately, as a result of kid-focused food advertising, children are the heaviest consumers of packaged, refined, less nutrient-dense food.” Her mac and cheese is updated with brown rice noodles, chicken and veggies — so it’s a meal adults can love too.
Before: This popular brand of brightly colored mac and cheese looks fun to eat, but it’s full of artificial colors and flavors. Most commercial brands are also made with refined, bleached wheat that is low in vitamins, minerals and fiber, and may cause digestive, behavior and skin problems in a growing number of gluten-intolerant individuals.
After: Brown-rice noodles form the foundation of Ward’s healthy mac-and-cheese makeover. “Brown rice is a lower-allergen option for a lot of us who overconsume wheat,” she says. For protein, which helps balance blood sugar, she adds organic rotisserie chicken. Broccoli cut into bite-size florets (so kids will be more inclined to eat them) completes the show. (If you’re too harried to make a homemade cheese sauce, try Annie’s-brand Gluten-Free Deluxe Rice Pasta and Cheddar.)
Before: “Kids are consuming too many liquid calories, and it’s fueling the obesity epidemic,” says Ward. This fruit punch is a nasty example — chock-full of artificial flavors, colors and 24 grams of sugar, the equivalent of 6 teaspoons.
After: Ditch the sugary juice and stick with filtered water, says Ward. To slowly wean kids off of juice, start by cutting their juice with water. And, if you’re packing your child’s lunch, Ward advises, avoid plastic (for both health and environmental reasons) and stick with a BPA-free stainless-steel thermos instead.
Before: The applesauce in this meal is the only real fruit or veggie in sight, but it, too, is high in sugar. Residual pesticides may also be a concern. If you serve applesauce, make sure it’s “100 percent pure, no-sugar-added, and organic,” says Ward. In a meal already heavy on sugars and refined grains (which quickly turn to sugar in the body), cookies or graham crackers are the last things this lunch needs, says Ward. “They are high in refined flour, HFCS and trans fats, all of which increase inflammation in the body,” she notes.
After: Rightsizing the mac-and-cheese portion leaves more room on the plate for nutritious legumes and fruit, such as edamame and mixed berries. Soy is a good source of protein, says Ward, but it’s best to eat soy in fermented or minimally processed forms (like edamame, which, as a finger food, also has great kid appeal). Berries are a tasty lower-sugar alternative to fruits like red grapes and bananas, and are very high in phytonutrients and fiber — which most kids could use a lot more of.
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