A Leading Nutritionist's View on Maintaining Healthy Children

Nutrition Expet Heidi SkolnikRecently, I had the privilege of sitting down with Heidi Skolnik, M.S., C.D.N., FACSM, who is a nationally recognized leader in nutrition. She is founder and president of Nutrition Conditioning, which oversees the nutrition programs at The Juilliard School, The New York Knicks, School of American Ballet, and Fordham University Athletics. She has worked with the NY Giants Football team for 18 years and has consulted to professional teams for 25 years including the NFL, MLB, NBA, WNBA, MLS, as well as Olympic, collegiate, high school and recreational athletes. I wanted to share some of Heidi's views on childhood obesity, diet, and nutrition.

How do you think children's eating habits today have contributed to childhood obesity?

Eating habits and lifestyle choices have contributed to childhood obesity. Children are less active than they used to be - focused on watching TV and playing video games instead of after school sports or playing with friends outdoors.

Family meal time is also a contributor. With so many families busy and on-the-go many are faced with dining out, which often means that foods are higher in calorie and fat content and lower in nutritional value. Families who eat at home often have a well-rounded meal filled with vegetables, fruits and healthy meats or proteins. Family meal time helps to educate kids on what constitutes as a healthy meal and when you consistently give kids healthy options they start to notice.

This year schools will be fully enforcing the new USDA requirements for fruits and vegetables, how can you get your kids to make these healthy choices in the cafeteria?

Help Children Eat Healthy!Help Children Eat Healthy!It starts with re-enforcing good eating habits at home. Try to keep the fridge stocked with fresh fruits, vegetables and healthy grains. Most schools offer a monthly cafeteria menu that kids can take home with them. Parents can review the menu with kids to help them decide in advance what would be a good lunch choice. This will also help avoid the cafeteria dilemma where kids are faced with so many options and aren't sure what would be the best choice.

When packing school snacks let kids be part of the decision that way parents learn what snacks kids like and will actually eat, versus something they will store in their locker or give to a friend. Providing a healthy snack you know they will enjoy will also avoid vending machine and cafeteria temptations.

What can you recommend for kids who dislike eating fruits and vegetables? Anything that you've seen work well?

Kids can naturally be picky eaters and shy away from foods they aren't familiar with, but that doesn't mean all hope is lost. One way around this is to try to make eating fruits and vegetables fun. For example, cut them into fun shapes or make funny face sandwiches with fruits and vegetables. One "trick" a parent shared with me: cut up a fruit and use a toothpick!

Try freezing fruit to create a healthy and cool dessert for kids. Making homemade fruit popsicle is another way to introduce fruit into kids' diets in a unique and fun way. If vegetables are a battle combine them with a healthy dip like peanut butter, hummus or a yogurt based dip. Make a homemade pizza and load it up with vegetables.

Gradually try incorporating new fruits and vegetables by slowing adding them to foods they like. Add a handful of blueberries or strawberries to cereal in the morning. Create a more nutrient rich turkey sandwich by adding spinach leaves instead of lettuce and avocado instead of mayo.

I'm a busy mom who doesn't have time to get creative with my kid's lunch, what are some easy things I can throw in to provide fruits, vegetables and whole grains?

Prepare lunch the night before so there isn't a time crunch in the morning. Make a homemade fruit salad and cut up fresh fruit to quickly add to the lunchbox. Try a whole grain pasta salad with tomatoes, peppers, olives and any other vegetables on-hand. Add some edamame for a protein punch. Pack Polly O String Cheese as a side for calcium and protein. You can also try a brown rice bowl with beans and diced vegetables.

If you can, try to make lunch fun and healthy with popular fruit and vegetable snacks that can be found at many grocery stores. GoGo squeeZ is an all-natural, 100% fruit applesauce that packs easily and comes in a fun squeezable pouch providing ¾ serving of fruit. Try Sabra Hummus 2oz Classic Singles to dip cucumber, celery, red pepper and baby carrots providing vitamins, fiber and protein. Dips are almost always fun; guacamole and salsa also work. Some other creative options include dried edamame, kale chips and KIND bars.

Give lunch a boost with whole grains by using whole grain bread when making sandwiches. A whole wheat pita stuffed with peanut butter and banana is delicious way to incorporate fruit, protein and fiber. Add a small carton of milk for the calcium and protein boost.

Which foods are best for each time of the day (breakfast, morning snack, lunch, after school snack) in terms of distributing carbohydrates and protein, etc.

Brain cells need twice as many calories as other cells in the body. A brain without the proper nutrition will quickly tire which can cause kids lose focus. Starting off the day with a breakfast high in carbohydrates balanced with some protein will jump start the brain and keep kids focused and alert. Try foods like eggs, yogurt, milk or cheese, peanut butter on whole grain toast or cereal high in fiber. Add a piece of small fruit too.

Kids get up for school so early it's no surprise they might need a mid-morning snack to sustain energy. Opt for snacks high in protein and whole grains like string cheese, yogurt or a whole grain granola bar. Lunch is another great time to help kids refuel their minds and bodies. These foods should be items with higher amounts of fiber and nutrients children need like calcium, protein, and vitamin C. Avoid processed foods such as cookies and chips that are higher in sodium, sugar and saturated fat.

Afternoon snacks are needed to energize after school sports and homework, but shouldn't get in the way of dinner. Choose items high in protein that will help kids stay full long enough to hold out for dinner. Some ideas are whole-grain crackers, trail mix, baby carrots and hummus, fruit and yogurt.

- Len Saunders is the author of Keeping Kids Fit, and nationally recognized for his work helping families lead a healthy lifestyle.