Mothers may have the best of intentions in feeding their children hearty, nutritious meals, but life sure can get in the way. Real moms don’t always have time to cook a healthy from-scratch meal even if that’s the goal. Registered dietitian Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, found this out the hard way when she had kids of her own.
All of a sudden, it wasn’t so easy for her to live the healthy life or keep herself and her family on track with diet and exercise. Kuzemchak turned to the web in search of wisdom and found plenty of advice, all of it sounding much too simplistic, none of it truly suiting real moms like her. And so it was that Kuzemchak’s blog, realmomnutrition.com was born.
Kars4Kids just loves the results of that effort. First of all, Sally Kuzemchak can write! She is by turns, a mom, an expert in nutrition, and a realist. Her recipes aren’t fussy and she’s not claiming to be a gourmet cook or foodie. And did we mention she can write?
Being parents ourselves, we like Sally’s description of the members of her family in regard to nutrition as “works in progress,” not perfect, but making effort, day by day. It’s refreshing to read her commonsense advice and to be granted permission to be human (in addition to being parental units). Sally didn’t hesitate when we asked if she would share some of her best tips and advice with our readers here at the Kars4Kids parenting blog. Here are the results of our conversation with Sally Kuzemchak.
K4K: Having just interviewed Amie Valpone of thehealthyapple.com, we at Kars4Kids were interested in what you had to say about clean eating in The Trap of Clean-Eating Treats where you talked about clean treats still being treats and the need to emphasize them to our children as such. We were also interested to read about your experiences of gaining weight by taking in too many clean food calories in Too Much of a Good Thing: Why Calories Count. It set us to thinking about the term “clean” as applied to food. Who invented that term “clean food?” And is it all a psychological scam? If clean food is clean, are some foods “dirty?”
Sally Kuzemchak: I don’t know when “clean” first started being used in relation to food. I understand what it’s trying to convey, but it does imply that some foods are “good” and virtuous while other foods are dirty or bad—which I don’t like. And “clean” also lets a lot of foods off the hook, like homemade peanut butter cups and snickerdoodle pie like I mention in the post. I especially worry about people avoiding conventional produce if they can’t afford organic (or don’t have access to it) because they don’t want to eat something they fear is “dirty”.
K4K:In a similar vein, we were struck by the idea in Why is Health Food Such a Joke in which your kids “found out” they weren’t supposed to like broccoli and about the Oikos yogurt tag line about being so delicious it can’t be nutritious as if food that is good for you couldn’t possibly taste good. How do you think this idea came about—that healthy food doesn’t taste good—and what can we do to change this perception?
Sally Kuzemchak: I think it’s a timeworn concept that healthy food is gross and kids need to be tricked or bribed into eating it. And it’s just perpetuated in media—books, commercial, ad campaigns, TV shows. I think we need to give our kids more credit, especially now that there are food manufacturers trying to convince parents that their kids won’t eat whole foods and need special “kid” food to get vitamins or servings of vegetables. We don’t need to trick kids into eating crackers made with spinach extract or cookies fortified with vitamins and minerals—we can expose our kids to actual fruits and vegetables that are naturally rich in these nutrients. When given the chance, kids love fresh food. We can change this perception by giving kids more chances to eat healthy food. That’s why I push for policies to make healthier foods the norm at snack time after sports, school, camp, and other places. People assume kids won’t eat these foods because they’re “healthy and yucky” but once you see kids devour a delicious fruit salad at a class party, you’ll change your mind!
K4K: How would you deal with the picky child who absolutely forbids the passage, for years on end, of anything green (unless it is pickled) into his mouth?
Sally Kuzemchak: I would stay the course and keep my cool. I’m a recovering picky eater myself, so I totally relate and understand kids who are finicky about food. It took me DECADES to eat foods like asparagus, beans, avocado, and onions. But I tried them when I was ready—and my parents never forced me to eat anything I didn’t want to eat, which I appreciate because now I have no traumatic memories involving food! My advice to parents is to keep serving the foods you want your kids to eat. Don’t pressure them, don’t withhold dessert, don’t bribe or trade bites of broccoli for bites of cookies. Serve foods in different ways (raw carrots, cooked carrots with brown sugar, shredded carrots on a salad, grated carrot in a muffin), be patient, be positive. It will happen!
K4K: What is the best way for a mother to teach her children about nutrition and about making responsible choices?
Sally Kuzemchak: Modeling those choices is number one. While your child is still young, you are the biggest influence on their actions and attitudes. If you want your child to make good choices, let her see you making those same choices. And have those choices simply be the default in your home, not something you preach about constantly. That being said, we do have talks in our house about junk food and its place. I don’t shield my kids from it—though I don’t typically keep too many junky foods in the house, I’m okay with my kids having them at parties, relatives’ houses, etc. We talk about what’s in it and what makes it junk. We also talk about deceptive marketing and how companies may try to spin their product as healthy when it’s not. I want them to be smart consumers. But I’m also realistic—I know they will eat and drink some of this stuff when they have their own money and are making their own decisions (I certainly did!).
K4K: What are the primary challenges a mother faces when it comes to nutrition? Can a first-time mother to be somehow prepare for the postpartum days ahead from a nutrition standpoint?
Sally Kuzemchak: I think you have to cut yourself some slack in those first few weeks and months. I was a sleep-deprived mess after my kids were born, especially my second who had colic. My eating was not stellar, but I eventually got back on track. Obviously having healthy foods prepared and ready to go helps a ton—like having pre-washed salad greens on hand and lots of fruit that you can grab. Take your family and friends up on the offer to make you meals! A friend of mine was organized enough to cook a bunch of meals for the freezer in the weeks before her second baby was born. How smart!
K4K: Why do you think so many mothers fail to enforce good nutrition habits at meals? Is it something about the amount of effort one needs to put into preparing healthy food? It does seem like a lot of work, all that chopping and so forth, and then convincing kids to try new things or things they are sure they won’t like. Some days moms are just too tired to cope. What then? How does a mom avoid falling into a trap where she just permanently gives up on nutrition?
Sally Kuzemchak: I think being a mom can be exhausting–and while there are so many joys there are also so many challenges and frustrations. Food can become one of those frustrations. I’m guilty of falling into frustration over it too, especially with my second child who is not the “easy” eater at the table like my first son. In fact, he went on a dinner strike when he was around 3 and barely ate a bite of dinner for weeks! But over the years, I’ve had to learn to relax a great deal. I try to follow Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility, which is a philosophy of feeding children that states you are in charge of the what and when of feeding and your children are responsible for whether they eat it and how much. Once you give yourself over to that, offering the healthy foods you’d like your children to eat, the pressure immediately comes off of you and now it’s up to your child. There’s no bribing or cajoling or threatening. There’s simply serving the food, giving your child lots of opportunities to eat healthy foods and share in family meals, and then letting your child do the rest. Parents can get really nervous and worried if their child doesn’t eat much at a meal, but you have to look at the big picture. Kids are learning about food and eating—and just like anything else (tying their shoes, riding a bike, learning to read) they need time.
K4K: What should mothers aim for in feeding their children in terms of the bare minimum? Is there a daily or weekly goal moms should strive for in feeding their children nutritiously?
Sally Kuzemchak: I don’t think of it in terms of daily or weekly goals. I think about it more generally—like “Has my child eaten veggies today?” or “They had a sweet treat at a party today, so we’re skipping dessert at dinner today.”
I try to serve fruits and vegetables as much as possible—kids should be getting multiple servings of those every day and especially with vegetables, it’s easy to let those slide. Sometimes the carrots I put in the lunchbox get gobbled up, sometimes they don’t. But they still have that exposure. And if they’re not eaten at lunch, I try to serve a veggie I know they really like at dinnertime. I try to serve fish at least once a week, I try to serve some meatless meals every week, and I try to serve something new every week or two to help all of us broaden our horizons.
K4K: What do you think is the reason for the rising childhood obesity rates? What can moms do to combat this in their children?
Sally Kuzemchak: There are so many possible reasons for childhood obesity rates, from screens and reduced recess and gym time to the widespread availability of cheap, calorie-dense junk food. My advice for moms is to create a home environment that is conducive to healthy living. Make sure fresh fruits and vegetables are available (and appealing), serve water and milk (or non-dairy milks) with meals and keep sugary drinks out of the house as much as possible, and set limits on screen time and try to stay active as a family.
K4K: What can parents do to prevent children from developing eating disorders?
Sally Kuzemchak: I’m certainly not an expert in this topic, but can say that it’s vitally important to model a healthy body image and relationship with food because kids are watching. Research has shown a link between parents who chronically diet or talk about dieting and children who do the same. So never talk negatively about your body, call yourself “fat” or label yourself “good” or “bad” for what you ate.
K4K: Is there a balance we should strive for in pressing home the issue of good nutrition? How do we keep from turning it into an obsession?
Sally Kuzemchak: That’s definitely an issue and I have heard about kids obsessing over it—commenting on other kids’ foods or on the other extreme, sneaking and binging on junk food that they’re not allowed to have. I always emphasize to my kids that we eat a certain way in our home because that’s what our family does—and that other families may do things differently and that’s okay. I never want my child commenting negatively to anyone about what they eat, just as I don’t want them to ever feel shame about having a cookie in their lunch or drinking a soda on vacation. That’s why I don’t shield my kids from that kind of food—I don’t want them to ever feel like they have to sneak it or binge on it at a friend’s house.