If you’re trying to cook healthier and serve your kids the correct food portions, something to watch out for are toppings, sauces and other add-ons.
In many cases, parents allow their kids to dish up their own sauces and toppings, without discussing health cons, thus, kids are getting way more calories in a day then they should. In fact, excessive toppings and sauces can turn an average healthy meal into a nightmare meal, as shown below…
5 healthy kid meal ruined by toppings
MEAL 1: 2 average-sized pieces of fish, scoop of long grain rice, steamed mixed veggies and apple and orange slices = 434 calories
+ A normal size serving of tarter sauce (which is considered 2 tablespoons) = 544 calories
+ 9 servings of tarter sauce = 1,424 calories
MEAL 2: 1 bean burrito (with beans, 1/3 cup of 2% cheese, tortilla), 1/2 cup of peas, fruit on the side = 482 calories
+ 1/4 cup sour cream = 601 calories
+ 1/2 cup of sour cream = 720 calories
MEAL 3: 2 slices of cheese pizza, big bowl of veggie salad plus ranch (1 tablespoon) and fruit 390 = 469 calories
+ 6 extra tablespoons of ranch = 907 calories
MEAL 4: 1/2 breast of baked chicken, 1/2 cup broccoli, normal sized cornmeal muffin and fruit = 465 calories
+ 1/2 cup of processed cheese sauce on the broccoli = 865 calories
MEAL 5: Small baked potato with tablespoon butter, 1 piece of white fish, cup of steamed veggies and fruit = 451 calories
+ 2 more servings of butter, 1/4 cup sour cream, 3 servings of tarter sauce = 1,104 calories
You may as well serve fast food
The average child or teen in the United States needs about 1,600 to 2,000 calories per day. None of the meals above that include massive additions of toppings, fits into a healthy kid calorie range, unless you’re seriously skimping on breakfast, lunch and snacks (which you shouldn’t).
In almost of these situations, you’d be better off calorie-wise, simply buying your kid a Happy Meal (860 calories).
Beyond calories, another problem with the toppings above – tarter sauce, sour cream, ranch, cheese sauce and so on, is that these toppings get almost 100% of their calories from fat. Basically, you’re just advocating pure fat when you allow your kid to eat this way.
What to do?
You’ve got a couple of choices here, and it’ll really depend on how you’ve raised your child thus far.
Situation one – you’re raising a healthy eater from birth
Role model healthy topping portion sizes for your child when he’s young. No one is saying that you should cut toppings entirely. However, there’s a healthy way to eat them and an unhealthy way to eat them. With young children, it’s best to place the toppings on their food for them, so they can get an idea of what’s a healthy serving size.
Do not add needless toppings, such as sugar to cereal or fruit ever. Kids should be able to eat a basic food like cereal or fruit without an added sweetener.
Before you even add toppings, make sure it’s necessary. Not all foods need toppings. If you raise your child on burritos that are sour-cream-free, and potatoes with light butter or no butter at all, you may be surprised that he’ll simply eat his food without a topping. Kids develop a taste for fatty toppings, they’re not born with a taste for them.
Two – you’ve got an older child or teen who has been raised with toppings galore
Here you’ve got two choices. You can get rid of toppings entirely. For example, don’t keep tarter sauce in your house. I know some parents who do this, and I actually think it’s a horrid plan. Kids, once grown will run into toppings and they should know how to use them properly. It’s lame to pretend toppings don’t exist. Secondly it’s not fair to people in the household who use toppings correctly. Banning food, is not, in my opinion, EVER a realistic or useful plan when it comes to teaching kids about nutrition.
A better choice is to start changing everyone’s habits. When you serve foods that kids are used to eating with toppings, don’t add the topping right away, see if your child will eat the food without.
If your child asks for a topping, say ranch, serve him up a proper amount and serve yourself one too, saying, “This is how much a real serving of salad dressing is.” It’s up to you if you discuss calories or not and fat or not – some kids can handle this conversation in little bits, some can’t. If your child gets defensive saying you didn’t give him enough, point out that the ENTIRE family is attempting to eat healthier and you’d like everyone involved. It can take time for a child to get used to food without toppings, so be prepared to stick to your guns.
Some research says you shouldn’t police food, especially if you’ve allowed your child to eat whatever he wants so far in life. However, I don’t consider limiting toppings, policing food. Sure, it’s frustrating and hard to have to change habits now, but in my opinion, it’s better to change habits now than to have your child’s belly fat get out of control or have your kid develop diabetes. I guess it’s up to you.
Little things you can do
- Buy alternative toppings. Salsa, for example, is a healthier topping than sour cream. Ketchup is surprisingly healthy and low-calorie, and this is a topping kids actually like. Lemon plus a little sugar in ice tea is better than a ton of sugar alone. Italian dressing can be a better salad dressing choice than ranch. BBQ sauce is low fat, low calorie and works well with many foods.
- Don’t dress up foods just because. Adding cheese to veggies or even butter should be considered a very once in a while event vs. an every evening sort of deal.
- Spice and sweeten up foods with herbs, spices and fruit, not toppings.
- Learn to be a better cook. Often I’ve seen people add toppings to make food taste better. If you cook well in the first place, toppings become less necessary.
- Role model, role model, role model – there’s no way to emphasize this enough. If you load on toppings it’s totally unfair and confusing for a kid if you limit their toppings.
- Don’t keep toppings on the table, such as butter, dressing or sugar.
- Plan meals that don’t need toppings, or plan meals that need less calorie-dense toppings.
- Use less toppings slowly. For example, if your child insists on 9 tablespoons of tarter sauce, suggest they add just six. The next time you serve fish, bring it down more, to maybe three tablespoons. Eventually, hopefully, they’ll develop a taste for the food you’re serving vs. the topping.
Bagel image via Flickr User ozmafan; cereal image by blackcat79 via sxc.