The solution to obesity may be found in one four-letter word: MOMS. That according to Jill West, Registered Dietitian, mother of three, and author of 400 MOMS: Discover What 400 Nutrition Experts Feed Their Kids.
Beyond obesity, West and health professionals everywhere agree that the foods we serve our children can make a huge difference in their behavior, school success, sick days, health, fitness, and even their self-esteem. But it’s not easy–with both parents working, running a household, after school commitments, homework, and modern-day stressors, getting something on the table that’s fast AND healthy seems nearly impossible sometimes.
Jill West can relate. She’s the picture of health, obviously practicing what she preaches, but preaching is far from West’s style as she confesses that she doesn’t really like to cook and that the question at rush hour, “Mom, what’s for dinner?” isn’t exactly music to her ears. She has a way of making moms everywhere feel a bit better about the job we’re doing to healthfully fuel our families in a stressed out, non-stop world. In 400 MOMS, West surveys over 400 Registered Dietitians, also moms, to find out how they do it. The result is a comprehensive “Go-To” guide for mothers everywhere with hundreds of practical tips, strategies and solutions for raising a healthy child.
ALIVE Magazine: Tell me about 400 MOMS and how you came up with the title.
Jill West: The 400 MOMS book is about helping moms provide healthy meals and snacks for their children and shaping their eating habits for a lifetime. The idea for the book came after years of hanging out at sports events and waiting to pick up kids after school. Knowing I was a Registered Dietitian, other moms would frequently ask me questions about how I feed my kids, such as “How often do you let your kids eat fast food?” or “What do you think of sports drinks?”
I wondered how other nutrition experts would answer, so I surveyed over 400 dietitians, who are also moms, about how they feed their kids. I asked what they give their kids for breakfast, how they get their kids to eat vegetables, what quick and healthy dinners they serve their kids, and hundreds more relevant questions. 400 MOMS is my own personal experience and advice combined with the ideas shared by these 400 dietitian moms about what works with our own children.
AM: What is your breakfast suggestion for busy school mornings?
JW: Cereal was the #1 choice for the 400 Moms. Why? Because it’s quick, it can be eaten dry “on-the-go” or with milk, and it’s healthy, as long as you choose the low sugar cereals. Guess, which is the #1 cereal nutrition experts, feed their kids: Cheerios! Why? Because kids from highchair age all the way up to adults can eat them, and they’re healthy. My criteria for healthy cereals are six grams of sugar or less and three grams of fiber or more per serving. Cheerios is both: low in sugar and a good source of fiber.
I also have lists of “Best Picks” and “Worst Picks” in the book, which moms tell me they love! Moms can turn to the “Best Picks” page for cereals and have many options to choose from. It simplifies their grocery shopping because they can go straight to the “Best Picks” list and know they’re making a healthy choice for their kids.
AM: How important is eating organic?
JW: The most important thing is to eat fruits and vegetables, whether they are organic or not. I’m really concerned that focusing too much on organic will decrease the amount of produce kids eat, which is far more harmful. The produce grown in this country has tighter regulations around pesticides than many countries, so most importantly, choose produce grown locally if possible and, if buying organic is important to you, focus on the ones that have thin skins because these are likely to have more pesticide exposure. For example, apples, strawberries, grapes, celery, spinach, and cucumbers would be more important to buy organic than bananas, watermelon, green beans and cantaloupe. I have a list in my book, and the Environmental Working Group website also lists them (www.ewg.org).
AM: You have a section in each chapter called “Your Game Plan.” What is that about?
JW: My thinking behind this was to help moms take what they’ve just read to the next step, which is to decide on a few specific “action steps” to start with their families. I give some examples to help get moms thinking about what changes they want to make, for instance, in trying to get the kids to eat more fruits and vegetables, I suggest they commit to “serve fruit at all 3 meals” or “serve fruit as the afternoon snack.” Another commitment related to healthy snacks would be, “I will buy cookies with no more than five grams of fat” or “We will try snacks from the Healthy Snacks List.”
AM: Give us a Game Plan for the New Year. What are some quick and easy changes we can make in our children’s diet, as a resolution to better eating?
JW: I suggest moms think about what they want to see improve this year in their kids’ eating habits or what they are buying at the grocery store. Next, choose and write down one or two “action steps.” And finally, think about the specifics of how you will make that Game Plan work. For example:
I will decrease the sweet drinks my kids consume.
The Specifics or “How To” might be:
1. I will serve milk or water instead of juice at meals.
2. I will allow soda no more than once a week.
3. I will limit juice to a ½ cup serving and no more than two days per week.
AM: What are healthy snacks Moms should have on hand?
JW: Some great snacks for the cupboard are almonds and other nuts, dried fruit, low sugar cereals, and whole grain crackers. Snacks for the refrigerator should include yogurt, cheese sticks, fresh fruit, and fruit cups. It really helps to have fresh fruit already washed and cut to make it easy for kids to “grab and go.”
AM: What about school lunch vs. packing a lunch from home?
JW: To buy or not to buy school lunch depends on the school district. Fifty-six percent of Nutrition Experts said they buy school lunch for their children one day per week or less. If the school lunches at your school are not very healthy, then I recommend once a week, which allows the child to participate and gives Mom a break from making lunch while still having peace of mind that most of the meals her child eats are healthy.
One of my three boys took the same lunch (peanut butter sandwich and dried mango) to school EVERY DAY for the entire year in 2nd grade. I’ve had moms tell me what a relief it was to read that story in my book, because they worried about their child not getting enough variety. I believe what’s most important is that kids are getting refueled for the afternoon, so they can focus academically, and if packing the same lunch means they will actually eat it, then that’s a win! Moms can then focus on getting a variety of foods at other meals and snacks without creating a battle over lunch.
AM: Dinner is such a challenging meal. What do Nutrition Experts do?
JW: Yes, I agree dinner is challenging in many ways. And although I care very much about healthy eating and teaching my kids about being healthy, I really don’t like to cook. Every Mom can relate to the kids asking, “Mom, what’s for dinner?” Certainly my kids do! Then about 30 minutes later, I get the next question: “When will dinner be ready?” That’s code for “I’m starving and want it now.” After a full day, along with after school activities and homework, that’s a lot of pressure, so I consider myself a “cook to feed” kind of mom. Nothing fancy, just get food on the table quickly, and yet still keep it healthy.
Based on the responses from 400 MOMS about the quick, healthy dinners they fix, I’m not alone. The #1 quick and healthy dinner was pasta and #2 was sandwiches. That one surprised me a little, but it makes sense.Here’s why: My #1 tip to moms when it comes to dinner is visualizing The Healthy Plate: half of the plate grains and protein and the other half of the plate fruits and vegetables. A sandwich takes care of the grains and protein portion of the plate, and then you can cut up an apple, add a handful of baby carrots and a glass of nonfat or 1% milk and you’ve got a healthy plate. You can do the same with one of the quick recipes in 400 MOMS. The entrée takes care of the grains and protein half of the plate, so all you have to do is add a fruit or vegetable and milk, and you’re done.
AM: I know a big struggle for parents is getting kids to eat their vegetables. What do you suggest?
JW: In my book I have 37 ideas that the 400 Moms suggest to help other moms get their kids to eat vegetables. A few of my favorites that Nutrition Experts suggest are:
1. Serve vegetables when kids are hungriest: right after school or right before dinner, while making dinner. I use this strategy myself. Before cooking dinner, I prepare the fruit and vegetable so it’s already on the plate. That way when my boys start hovering around the kitchen, waiting for dinner to be ready, they will often snack on what’s already on their plate.
2. Offer two options. Ask your child, “Do you want broccoli or carrots with dinner?” The child has some choice, which increases the odds they’ll eat some of it. If, however, the child says, “I don’t want either of them,” then I get to decide. Pretty quickly they realize they would rather make the choice.
3. Blend them in. Add vegetables to omelets, soups, pasta sauce, stews, and casseroles.
4. “It’s what we do.” Many Nutrition Experts said that vegetables are always served and that Mom and Dad eat them too. It’s just a normal part of the meal and kids are used to it, so there’s no room for complaining or unnecessary drama.
I do have some Words of Caution, though, on the subject of vegetables:
- Don’t insist your child “Clean Your Plate” or eat all the vegetables served.
- Avoid power struggles about food and meals. Mealtime should be as pleasant and relaxed as possible.
- Mom’s job is to provide the fruit and vegetable; Child’s job is to decide how much to eat.
- Mom job is to model healthy eating.
AM: Let’s talk about childhood obesity.
JW: It’s a major problem that has really serious long-term consequences. For the first time in our history, this generation is expected to have a shorter lifespan than their parents. The reason is that obesity leads to many medical complications. For the first time ever, young teens are developing high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol that used to only be seen in adults, and this has the potential to significantly shorten their lives. If there’s one strategy I can suggest to begin reversing this trend, it is to stop sweet drinks of all kinds—not just soda, but sweet teas, juice drinks, coffee drinks, sports drinks, etc. When you look at the data since 1970, there is a striking correlation between obesity, sweet drinks and milk intake. In 1970, obesity in kids was at 5% and soda intake was 6.5 oz./day on average; in 2010 obesity in kids had tripled to 17% and soda consumption had quadrupled to 24 oz./day. That’s just soda. If we add in all sweet drinks that kids consume, then the amount they’re drinking is much, much higher. And these statistics only apply to obesity; if we combine overweight and obese kids, 34% (one in three kids), are overweight or obese.
It’s also important to look at what has happened to milk intake since 1970. Kids are drinking half as much milk now compared to 1970. Sweet drinks are pushing out milk, which is really alarming because kids are getting liquid sugar in place of really important nutrients, such as protein, calcium, vitamin D and potassium. This will have a major impact on their bones as they become adults.
AM: What advice do you have for picky eaters?
JW: The 400 Moms had many great ideas, but two that stand out for me are:
#1: Try, Try Again!
My oldest always loved to try new foods; my middle son would look at a new food and decide he didn’t like it. My youngest was somewhere in between. However, I would periodically keep trying vegetables and other foods they didn’t like because kids’ taste preferences change, and if you stop serving it, they never have an opportunity to discover they like it later.
It’s also important to avoid drama when using this strategy. The goal is to casually keep trying foods, minimizing the attention given, and oftentimes, kids will eventually come around to eating a wider variety of foods.
Moms need to remind themselves that their job is to model what a healthy plate looks like. That way the child has the skills and knowledge to make healthy choices as they get older, when he or she decides it’s important. An example of this was a former neighbor’s son. He didn’t like vegetables as a child, but his parents always served them, and his parents ate them. It wasn’t until after college that he started eating them regularly and paying closer attention to his diet because his body was changing, and it became important to him.
#2: The Bite Rule
Nutrition experts had several variations about how they implemented this strategy. The idea is to ask your child to try one bite, two bites or three bites, and then thank her for trying it, even if she didn’t like it. This strategy was very helpful with one of my boys who would look at a food and decide he didn’t like it. I would ask him to try it and if he said, “yuk,” then I would say, “Thanks for trying it!” The good news is, he also learned there were foods he didn’t think he would like that he ended up liking because he tried one bite. It avoids a battle at the dinner table yet gradually expands the variety kids will eat.
AM: Is fast food ever ok?
JW: In my opinion, once a week is not going to cause any health or nutritional problems. Eighty percent of the 400 Moms serve fast food once or less per week. The problem is, children are eating meals out four times per week on average. That’s a real problem! It adds up to too much sugar, fat, and calories and not enough fruits, vegetables, milk, fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
I know families are busy and after-school schedules can be crazy. I’ve been there too! But there are many ways to get a quick meal on the table. It takes a little grocery planning and having some quick options in the freezer, but it’s definitely doable. For example, while frozen chicken nuggets are baking, you can steam some broccoli or make a basic salad, wash some grapes and pour a glass of milk. That’s a healthy, balanced meal in 20 minutes, with nothing fried and no added sugar.
AM: What’s some of the best advice Nutrition Experts gave?
JW: There are so many great suggestions, strategies and ideas, that’s a difficult question. And what works for each family can be different, so having lots of suggestions helps.
I love the idea of giving kids choices. For example, moms can give kids two fruit and vegetable options; you can involve them in deciding which school lunches to choose, and involve them in grocery shopping, cooking, and gardening, when possible. There are many ways to give them choices.
I also love the “It’s What We Do” concept. The whole family, including parents, is served the same healthy plate. It’s all about what’s healthy for our bodies, not about weight.
AM: How would you summarize the book, 400 Moms?
JW: The most important takeaways can be summed up in the acronym: BEST
B: Breakfast everyday
E: Encourage five servings of fruits and vegetables daily
S: Stop sweet drinks and soda
T: Trim down on fast food
I believe moms are the solution to raising healthy kids and reversing childhood obesity. My hope is that 400 MOMS will empower moms to make small changes that can have a big impact on the health of their kids. What a gift to give your child!