When my son was about 6 years old, we had a “moment” while shopping. He was wandering the always-nutritionally-dangerous cereal aisle, and I was mentally girding myself to fend off his cries for the sugary concoctions decked out with characters like Shrek and Scooby-Doo. But as I tried to motor past the junk cereals to the more nutritionally sound ones, my son stopped.
“Hey, Mommy,” he said. “Do you see this Shrek cereal?”
“Yes, sweetheart,” I began. “You know we don’t—”
He interrupted me, with a touch of urgency in his voice. “Mommy, they’re trying to trick me with advertising, aren’t they?”
I was stunned…and really, really relieved.
For the rest of that trip, we strolled around the store discussing why the cereals with cartoon characters were at his eye level, why even foods with labels that say things like “Loaded with Vitamin C!” could still be poor choices, and how to decode the jumble of ingredients on the sides of boxes. We even covered sugars, artificial colors, organic food, and good and bad fats. It was quite a day.
But he’s still a kid, and his nutritional epiphany didn’t suddenly transform him into a good-food guru—and I’m not a nutritional saint all the time either. Still, my son understands when I explain why we don’t buy certain foods he may see at a friend’s house. I’ve learned the grocery store doesn’t have to be a battle zone, and that you can raise shopping-savvy kids without mid-aisle meltdowns. Here’s how to manage each section of the store:
The produce bins
You don’t dissect ingredients lists here, but there’s still plenty to learn among the apples and kumquats. Expanding kids’ produce horizons will be good for their bodies and their brains, says Alan Logan, a naturopathic physician and author of The Brain Diet. “Make it a game for them to fill the cart with the most colorful assortment of produce they can,” he says, noting that deeply colored foods like berries, broccoli, and eggplant aren’t just nice to look at: They contain loads of beneficial antioxidants and phytochemicals (like beta-carotene). “You can explain to even the youngest kids that colorful fruits and veggies will make their bodies stronger and their brains work better,” Logan says.
Kids can quickly grasp what “whole foods” really means, too. Stacey Antine is founder and CEO of HealthBarn USA, a youth-focused nutrition and lifestyle education program operated on a working farm in Wyckoff, New Jersey. One of her favorite lessons is to show kids fresh strawberries (and the lack of an ingredients list), then compare them to strawberry-flavored fruit leather from the snack section. “Kids are often outraged to discover how many ingredients are in the leather, or that there’s not any strawberry in the artificial snacks,” she says. These realizations often make the real fruit more appealing to kids than the processed (and often pricey) faux-fruit snack.
Another decision you’ll be making in the produce section is whether to buy conventionally grown or organically grown foods. Generally, if you eat the skin of a food, it’s good to go organic. If you don’t have the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen” (their widely respected list of the most contaminated fruits and veggies) committed to memory, you can download it to your computer or iPhone at foodnews.org. Encourage older children and teens to bone up on the contamination ratings, and let them lead the shopping trip through the fruit and vegetable aisles. “Lots of parents just go on autopilot in the produce section, grabbing the same few things and not looking at what’s available,” Antine says. Letting your older child have more produce responsibility may encourage him (and you) to try less-familiar fresh foods.
The dairy case
In most places, the milkman is a relic of the past, replaced by vast stretches of glass doors filled with cartons and jugs of every variation on the idea of “milk.” But before you can teach your kids the best dairy options, you need to understand the sometimes-surprising nutritional implications of different milk products.
First, skip the skim and head for the 1 percent milk to get the biggest nutritional benefits, like vitamin D (of which many American kids already have a deficiency). “Vitamin D is fat-soluble, meaning it’s absorbed with the help of fat, so it’s questionable whether your body would even absorb the vitamin D in skim milk,” Antine says. Another reason to choose low-fat over non-fat in all dairy products is the hidden sugar content. “When they take out fat, they add sugar for flavor,” she says. “It will be listed on the ingredients as things like sugar, dextrose, and corn syrup.”
To keep kids interested in the dairy aisle, ask them to spy products with “rBGH” on the label. A genetically engineered hormone that increases cows’ milk production, rBGH (which stands for recombinant bovine growth hormone) is not only bad for the cows, who often develop udder infections because of it, but is also suspected of causing negative health effects in humans, including cancer. Dairy producers aren’t required to disclose whether milk comes from cows treated with rBGH, but most companies that don’t use it advertise this fact. When kids find these letters, the milk is probably labeled “rBGH free” and is a good choice.
Parents also need to be vigilant around yogurt, the wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing of kids’ food. “I’m a huge fan of yogurt for kids, but it’s a trap sometimes,” Logan says. “Lots of kids’ yogurts are no more than sugary puddings.” The main bad-guys in this seemingly healthy snack? Food colorings and preservatives. Parents and scientists have long suspected food coloring might be causing behavioral and health problems in kids, and a 2007 British study confirmed it: Children with no previous behavioral issues exhibited ADHD-like symptoms after consuming several different food dyes and preservatives.
Logan suggests that when kids request a yogurt, parents ask them if it meets three standards: that sugar (or a sugar variant like high fructose corn syrup) isn’t the first ingredient listed, that it’s free of artificial colors, and that it contains live, active probiotic cultures. Also, avoid dairy foods that say they’re “heat treated after processing”—this can kill all the beneficial cultures that make yogurt such a healthy choice.
The cereal aisle
As long as there have been commercials, there have been junk-filled cereals advertised directly to kids. “Companies love to target kids using bright colors, fun characters, and happy, upbeat messages,” says Jennifer Haas, a registered dietitian at Nova Medical and Urgent Care Center, Inc. in Ashburn, Virginia.
School-age kids will probably understand when you explain that companies are trying to “trick” them with these marketing and packaging techniques—but you’re trying to educate your children, not instill them with complete corporate paranoia. So empower them by also explaining what they should see when searching for cereal:
- Fewer than 8 grams of sugar per serving.
- A short list of ingredients. “A limit of 10 ingredients is a good place to start,” says Bronwyn Schweigerdt, an Oakland, California–based nutritionist and author of Free to Eat. Make it a game to find the cereal with the fewest.
- Fiber. Ask kids to look at all the cereals they would eat and find the one with the highest fiber content, says Logan.
Finally, point out that even if a box boasts its content of a certain vitamin or its calcium load, that doesn’t mean it’s a good choice—it can still have food coloring, tons of sugar, and very little fiber or protein. “And remember, terms like ‘natural’ and ‘wholesome’ aren’t regulated by the FDA,” says Jodi Greebel, a dietitian and president of Citrition, LLC, a New York City–based nutritional counseling service. “A product with that on the label can still have a lot of junk.”
The freezer section
Many people don’t realize how full of fat, calories, sodium, and preservatives many frozen meals are. “Even with whole-grain, organic frozen kids’ meals, you may still walk into a bit of a minefield with fat and calories,” Logan says. Organic and vegetarian meals heavy on beans or lentils are better options. Whatever you choose, though, try to minimize or avoid preservatives, food coloring, and ingredients you don’t recognize (see KIWI Cheat Sheet for some unusual-sounding—but perfectly healthy—ingredients).
The freezer section is a good place to talk about portion sizes. Show your child where to look for “Number of servings” on the label: Is that meal supposed to serve one or two? Does it seem like enough food? What else could you eat with it to feel full?
Here’s an answer to the last question: Stroll a little farther down the aisle to find some of the healthiest items in the entire store—frozen fruits and vegetables. Surprised? The reality is that unless you can find a locally grown product, frozen fruits and vegetables are often better for you than what’s in the produce aisle. They’re picked when they’re ripe, rather than being left to ripen during a long transport process. They’re flash-frozen right after they’re picked, so they’re chock-full of nutrients. And if fresh organic blueberries cause a little too much pocketbook pain when you’re in the produce section, check the freezer shelves—they can often be found for a much more reasonable price, which is very cool indeed.
KIWI Cheat Sheet
Even the best teachers occasionally need to consult the answer book. Here’s yours: a parental “cheat sheet” for smarter shopping.
VIO (Very Important Organics)
- Soft-fleshed produce (peaches, grapes, berries, cherries, carrots)
- Edible-skin produce (apples, pears, bell peppers, celery)
- Leafy greens (kale, lettuce, collard greens, spinach)
RED FLAG INGREDIENTS
Avoid these ingredients in your kids’ food whenever possible:
- Yellow No. 5, No. 6, No. 13 (implicated in behavioral issues)
- Red No. 3, No. 7, No. 40 (implicated in behavioral issues)
- Blue No. 2 (a possible carcinogen)
- Sodium Benzoate (a preservative)
- High fructose corn syrup (a sweetener that has been implicated in diabetes and obesity; one study found more than 50% of HFCS contained mercury)
- Hydrogenated oils (the source of harmful transfats)
- Nitrites, found in cured meats (a possible carcinogen)
- Butylated Hydroxyanisole or BHA (a possible carcinogen)
BUT DON’T WORRY ABOUT…
You may not recognize these ingredients, but they’re safe.
- Alginate, Carrageenan (thickening agents made from algae and used in dairy products)
- Alpha Tocopherol (a form of vitamin E)
- Ascorbic Acid (another name for vitamin C)
- Sodium Citrate (controls acidity in juices, gelatins, and other foods)
- Lactic Acid/Lactase (controls acidity)
- Lecithin (a source of the nutrient choline)