What's in your snacks? Reading labels with your kids

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When my kids were little, they used to play a game with me. They’d cover up the nutritional facts on the side of a package and see if I could guess the calories, carbs, proteins, fat, and fiber content of the food. Even before packaged foods were required to have nutritional labeling, I knew the numbers. After dieting for my entire adult life and most of my teenage years, I had virtually memorized the specifics of all the foods I kept in the house! I’m not saying you need to be as obsessive as I was/am, but even kids should understand that all packaged foods are NOT created equal.

Even before any of us go into a grocery store, advertisers do a great job of making their products appealing to kids by using a variety of marketing tricks like athlete and celebrity endorsements, bright and humorous packaging, tie-ins to TV shows or movies, and “pretend” health claims. From marketing foods as “low-fat”, to claiming to be a “superfood” or “organic”, or even calling a food “simple”, the claims try to pull kids (and their parents) into buying the products without looking more closely at what’s in them. Even if something is labeled "all-natural," it can still contain tons of sugar, unsaturated fats, or other elements that can be harmful. Some snacks labeled "all-natural" can contain just as much fat as a candy bar.

Being a full-time family nutritionist (even when it’s just for your own family) can be overwhelming and overly-time consuming when you already have a job. What’s more, sometimes at the end of a long day of work, the last thing we’re thinking about is the content of what we’re feeding our kids as long as they’ll eat it without starting World War III.

The good news is, you can begin teaching your kids the difference between what’s on the package and what’s inside with packages of food you have in your house already; for example, a box of cookies, crackers, cereal, or canned fruit:

First, look at the serving size. Show them it’s located at the top of the label and tells the amount of food used to measure all the other numbers on the label. You can check the serving size of your child's favorite packaged snack or cereal.

Then, check the calories: Tell them that a calorie is a unit of energy, and different foods contain different amounts of calories. Show your child the number of calories on the label and tell him it is an important number because it provides energy for his body, but too many calories can cause weight gain.

Along with the size and calories, look for how many servings are in the package.  Many times, we will just look at the calories and assume the number is for the whole bag of chips, cookies, crackers, etc. Often these snack bags contain 2 or 3 servings per bag, and instead of the 150 calories listed, we get 450 calories with the 3 servings. Help your child measure a serving size of his favorite snack. This could include counting the number of cookies in one serving or pouring a serving of cereal into measuring cups. Your child can practice his math skills and understand what a serving size looks like.Then, he can determine if his favorite food is high or low in calories per serving.

Next, find the fat, saturated fats, trans fats, sodium, sugar, and cholesterol on the label. Explain that these need to be either avoided or eaten in small amounts because they can cause weight gain or other health problems. Then, find the fiber, carbohydrates, protein, and vitamins and minerals--the "good" nutrients--and explain that these "good" nutrients need to be in larger amounts because they make the body stronger and can help them grow.

Finally, Read the list of ingredients together. Look for foods that have a short ingredient list with natural-sounding ingredients. The first ingredients are the most plentiful in the food. Beware of foods that start out with sugars (like sugar, corn syrup, and sucrose), fats and oils (vegetable oil, soybean oil), and salt. If these ingredients appear early in the ingredient list, the food is probably not a good choice. Also, ingredients with longer and more chemical-sounding names are less natural and likely not good for you.

Weekend errands can even be accomplished while educating your kids; make this into a grocery store shopping game. Have them find the foods that are higher or lower in nutrients. They’ll learn about comparing foods and choosing the healthier option. Let them find the canned fruits with the lowest amount of sugar, or the frozen vegetables highest in vitamin A (C, etc.), or choose a cereal higher in fiber, but lower in carbohydrates. They could even pick the frozen pizza with the lowest fat or select a juice that is low in sugar.

Sometimes, all it takes is a little awareness and accountability to keep us on track nutritionally. When your kids know how to keep track of what they put in their bodies, they’re more likely to choose wisely.