Pizza, fries, nachos, soda pop … the dinner of champions it’s not. But it’s often the dinner that kids dashing from school to practices, games and home wind up eating.
Fast food, concession stand fare and packaged snacks are staples in many households. That’s especially true for children in organized sports, even when parents acknowledge they aren’t the healthiest options, according to a study published in the July/August 2012 issue of the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.
“Mostly it’s convenience, especially with parents working and everybody being so busy,” says Kiersten Firquain, a mom and the chef and founder of Bistro Kids, a school lunch provider. “It’s so much easier to go to the concession stand when you get to the game.”
So what’s a parent to do?
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Even when healthy meals are a priority, serving them up requires planning. Take Janet and Brian Mark of Shawnee. They both work full time, their sons (Nate, 13, and J.J., 12) play competitive baseball, and their daughter (Lizzie, 8) takes dance lessons and plays volleyball and soccer.
Summer was challenging enough, with overlapping practice schedules and multi-day, all-day tournaments. Now school, with its early mornings and homework, is back in the mix.
The Marks rely on light meals like noodles before practices and tote a cooler filled with protein-packed snacks, granola bars, sandwiches and water bottles to games and tournaments. On weekends, they make pans of lasagna, enchiladas and other dishes perfect for quick weeknight meals.
They then usually wait to eat later in the evening, after everyone is back home, so they can connect as a family around the dinner table.
“That’s really important to us,” Mark says. “Sometimes it falls apart and doesn’t work, but we try.”
What’s for dinner is also key, says Nichole Burnett, a family and consumer sciences agent with Kansas State University Research and Extension in Johnson County. Foods that are high in fat, salt and sugar are not only unhealthy, but they reset kids’ taste buds. A steady diet of fast food spurs cravings and makes healthy options taste worse in comparison, she says.
“Vegetables don’t taste quite the same if they’ve been eating chicken nuggets and french fries at most meals,” says Burnett, who spends many of her own evenings and weekends shuttling her two daughters to tumbling, volleyball, cheerleading competitions, softball and other activities.
Even fruit tastes less sweet to a young palate used to artificially sweetened sports drinks and sodas, she says. Sweet drinks also add unneeded calories and fill kids up, making them less likely to eat that healthy snack. That’s why Burnett recommends filling a reusable bottle with plain old water instead of buying sports drinks and other beverages.
“Kids will do better when eating healthier and staying hydrated with water,” Burnett says. “That will show up in how they’re performing.”
Good nutrition isn’t a one-shot deal, though. It’s something parents can work on throughout the day, says Beth Bader of Overland Park, the author of “The Cleaner Plate Club” (Storey Publishing, 2010).
“Every time you add something healthy to the mix, it takes the pressure off the evening meal to be the end-all be-all of balanced nutrition,” says Bader, whose 7-year-old daughter, Amelie, competed in her first youth triathlon earlier this year. “It frees you up.”
Bader follows a basic protein-whole grain-fruit-vegetable formula for each meal. That might mean a hard-boiled egg, slice of whole-grain toast and blueberry-beet smoothie for breakfast, followed by a turkey and cheese sandwich (also on whole-grain bread) with fruit and a salad for lunch.
Scrambled eggs, homemade burritos, wraps and quesadillas are quick-and-easy dinner options, as are leftovers. When Bader cooks on weekends, she often makes a bigger batch of meatloaf or adds extra burgers to the grill with an eye toward midweek.
“We all have days when the kids aren’t going to eat as well, like at birthday parties or on vacation,” Bader says. “I’m constantly figuring out strategies so that doesn’t become a majority of our diet.”
Notice that Bader said “our.” She and her husband, Kurt Becker, eat the same meals they make for their daughter. It’s an increasingly unique concept in a world dominated by kiddie menus, character-branded products and advertisements keen on convincing parents that children will eat only certain foods.
Books like “My Two-Year-Old Eats Octopus” (Bull Publishing, 2009), “Hungry Monkey” (Mariner Books, 2010) and “Bringing Up Bebe” (Penguin Press, 2012) have a different message: Kids from around the world devour an enormous range of foods. So cook the healthy meal you want to eat and serve it to the entire family.
Preparing one meal just makes sense, says Kathy Denis of Overland Park, and it’s easier and cheaper than eating out. When her children were younger, it was a great way to introduce them to new textures and flavors. Now that the kids are older — Julien is 13 and Camille is 15 — cooking at home ensures they get the nutrition they need.
And, like anything, planning, shopping and cooking healthy meals becomes a habit.
Denis’ husband and her collaborator on the Restaurant Guide of Kansas City, Laurent Denis, made a vegetable tart one recent weekday night. It was an early-evening snack for one teen, dinner for the parents and a post-practice meal for their second child. Leftovers went into the next day’s lunch boxes for school.
No one stopped at the drive-through on the way home or suggested ordering pizza, because they knew a healthy dinner was waiting at home.
“When the whole family eats healthy, it just falls into place even if the schedules are hectic,” Denis says. “If the adults eat healthy, the kids will eat healthy, no matter who’s at the table.”