Free Resource Sheets to Teach Healthy Eating Habits


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Entries in Discretionary Calories (3)


A Cookie a Day...

Have you ever noticed that there is no Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for cookies?

The USDA has a lot to say about fruits and vegetables, but almost nothing to say about brownies, about cake, or about candy. Don’t you think that’s even a bit unusual?

Sweets and treats kind of stay under the nutrition-discussion radar.  But in reality, sweets and treats shape the show.  Read Snacks: The Gifts That Keep on Giving and The Snack Attack.

Kids now get about 1/3 of their daily calories from desserts, sweetened beverages, salty snacks and candy, but the Food Pyramid doesn’t even have a category for these foods.

Keeping silent about sweets and treats is kind of like keeping your crazy old aunt in the attic: you want people to think she doesn’t exist, but she does.  And pretending she’s not there won’t make her go away.  It's time to get honest about our eating.

I suppose the USDA doesn’t think we need any guidance about how much cheesecake to consume because we’re doing just fine on our own, thank you very much.

And perhaps, giving us an RDA for sweets and treats would be seen as condoning their consumption.  (It’s kind of like the argument some people use against discussing birth control: don’t talk about it or they’ll actually do it.)

But without any discussion of how much to consume — or rather, setting an actual top-end number—people are left to their own devices.  Look where that’s gotten us.  (And thinking that people will deconstruct their foods to find out how much of the cookie qualifies as grains and how much is added sugar is just plain silly.)

Because the USDA doesn’t have an RDA for sweets and treats, you have to construct one for yourself.

Your kids need a concrete number to shoot for.  Ambiguous advice—limit your intake of added sugar, for instance—is almost meaningless.  "I could have had 6 donuts, but I limited my intake to 4."  Success!?

The folks at the USDA know this.  That's why they set numbers for the good stuff. The closest the USDA comes to discussing sweets and treats, however, is under the heading Discretionary Calories —  the extras you can spend once you have fulfilled your daily allotment of “good” nutrients.   Read When Calories Don’t Count.

For children aged 3-7, the USDA recommends that discretionary calories stay between 165 and 170 per day. (Read recommendations by age.)  This translates into about 1 treat per day.

A Birthday Cake Mini Donut from Starbucks has 130 calories; their Chocolate Chunk Cookie has 360.  Even a small box of Goldfish crackers has 280 calories.

The point is not to totally restrict your kids’ access to sweets and treats, but to teach them how to consume their favorite delights in a reasonable way.  Read To Restrict or Not, That is the Question.

The Food Pyramid is so concerned about convincing you to get the “good” food in that it ignores the crap.  But if you do that, it can take over your life.

The whole point of the Food Pyramid is to teach the concept of proportion: eating foods in the right ratios. That's why the Food Pyramid is a pyramid, not a circle or some other shape.  The pyramid visually represents how we should eat: more of this, less of that.

Teach your children proportion by teaching them to make choices— to eat Goldfish crackers or a cookie, to eat sweetened  yogurt or some ice cream—and you’ll be teaching them to manage sweets and treats, a skill they need for a lifetime of healthy eating.

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~


Feeding Future Adults

When you shoot your kids from the cannon, what eating trajectory will they be on?

  • If your kids have the same eating habits as adults as they have today, will you think they have learned to eat right?  Or
  • Do you hope your kids change how they eat as they get older?

You know how Oprah talks about "Aha Moments?" Well here's one to consider: I once asked a friend why she doled out carrots (or other veggies) with lunch every day. She said it was because she wanted to teach her kids the habit of daily vegetable-eating.  Why, I asked her, did she also give them chips every day?  I saw the lightbulb go off.  

We start teaching lifetime habits in childhood. Your kids aren't actually kids. They're really future adults.

Of course, the job isn’t just about the future; we’ve got to take care of the little buggers today too.  But if you think about it, the parenting imperative is really to teach kids the stuff they’ll need to survive, if not actually thrive, when we launch them into the worlds on their own

If you have been thinking that it doesn’t matter so much what your toddler eats because there’s time for improvement, I’ve got news for you: bad eating habits don’t get better. 

The news is grim. A recent study of 2-18 year olds found that close to 40% of the calories consumed by kids come from empty calories. In other words, our kids are consuming a lot of foods that have virtually no nutritional value. 

Half of those empty calories come from just 6 foods:

  • Soda
  • Sugary Fruit Drinks
  • Grain desserts, such as cake, cookies and donuts
  • Dairy desserts, such as ice cream
  • Pizza
  • Whole milk

I  know it is hard to think of milk calories as empty. It is milk, after all.  But compared to skim, whole milk is loaded with fat (and not the good kind of fat either).  Read When Calories Don't Count.  Also check out Coke Beats Juice.

If anything, eating habits get worse.

Look at how Whole Milk and Fruit Juice turn into Soda and Pizza as the top 2 sources of calories:

  • Children age 2-3 —  #1 Source=Whole Milk; #2 Source=100% Fruit Juice
  • Children age 4-8 —   #1 Source=Grain Desserts; #2 Source=Yeast Breads
  • Children age 9-13 — #1 Source=Grain Desserts; #2 Source=Pizza
  • Children age 14-18 — #1 Source=Soda; #2 Source=Pizza

The researchers also discovered...

  • 2-3 year olds get 13% of their calories from added sugars, and kids 4 and up get almost one fifth (18%) of their calories from added sugars.
  • 2-3 year olds get most of their fat from milk and meat, but 14-18 year olds get most of theirs from pizza and pie (and cookies, cakes and other grain desserts).

These habits carry on into adulthood.  Read Why Adults Eat Poorly.

The solution is simple: THINK BIG!

It's hard to imagine that changing the way you think will change the way your kids eat, but it will.  Ask yourself what eating habits you want your children to have when they're grown and then feed accordingly.

Kids who start out consuming empty calories, tend to stay the course.  After all, change is hard to achieve. 

Read Think Big! Habits for a Lifetime

It is easy to lose sight of the future when it comes to feeding kids because immediate nourishment is so important.

Plus, no one really expects kids to eat right.  (Even pediatricians frequently tell parents to wait it out.)

Taste preferences and food choices, though, are more nurture than nature. How else can we explain the simple truth that Indian kids like curry and American kids like chicken nuggets?

The foods your kids eat early in life have a long-term influence on their eating habits. Do your kids a favor: Feed them the way you hope they'll eat when they're grown... and save them from a future struggle. 

~ Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits. ~


Source: Reedy, J. and S. Krebs-Smith. 2010. “Dietary Sources of Energy, Solid Fats, and Added Sugars Among Children and Adolescents in the United States.” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 110(10): 1477-84.


When Calories Don't Count

What percentage of a graham cracker do you think helps your child meet his daily nutritional needs? About 60%.

What about chocolate milk?  Just over 50%

Cream cheese? 0%

According to the USDA, discretionary calories are extra calories that can be “spent” once your nutritional needs have been met.  These are the calories that come from high fat foods, foods with added fats or sugars, and from eating more food than your body needs.  For daily nutritional needs, these calories don't count.

For children aged 3-7, the USDA recommends that discretionary calories stay between 165 and 170 per day. (Click to see recommendations by age.)

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