ISO: A Truly Healthy Toddler Snack

Goldfish crackers

Goldfish crackers (Photo credit: Lynn Kelley Author)

I am not going to mince words on this one. American toddlers are drowning in cheesy fish crackers and sugary purees of jammin’ fruits, and it’s about time someone said so.

Both work-at-home moms and working moms rely, heavily, on snacks. We are always going somewhere, and need portable food items. But we should ask what, exactly, our choices of food for children are doing to their developing preferences, brains and life-long habits. Just take a minute to read this brilliant, stomach-churning article about the way the industrial food complex has chemically mapped our taste buds to maximize junk food addiction. I noticed two things amidst my general nausea:

  1. The plastic-packaged, fat, salt and sugar bombs that are Lunchables are now a billion dollar business (!), built almost entirely on the need for parents to have convenience foods for kids.
  2. It only takes a few days — three or so — of “normal” eating to break a salt addiction.

When infants move from dense purees of real food (whether in a BPA-lidded infant food jar or not) to a toddler’s diet, they are supposed to begin to eat what the family is eating, according to our pediatricians. But here’s the catch — most of us (including my family, before we gave it a rethink) don’t eat that well.

Before Maya, we ate a lot of processed stuff out of the freezer, and we ate out a lot. We also barely cooked, though we probably cooked at home more than most folks, both because we like to cook and out of general cheapness.

After people have kids, as should be obvious, they have even less free time than before. With so many families with two working parents, who is supposed to get the cooking done? At our house, most days, we manage something. But it does feel thrown together.

Stop Chef

This lack of time for preparing a family meal has proven to be a serious problem for the quality of our lives and health. In fact, people now spend more time watching cooking shows than cooking. Here’s the ever-insightful Michael Pollan in a column 2009 (making a point he also drives home in his new book, Cooked):

Today the average American spends a mere 27 minutes a day on food preparation (another four minutes cleaning up); that’s less than half the time that we spent cooking and cleaning up when Julia [Child] arrived on our television screens. It’s also less than half the time it takes to watch a single episode of “Top Chef” or “Chopped” or “The Next Food Network Star.” What this suggests is that a great many Americans are spending considerably more time watching images of cooking on television than they are cooking themselves…

Could it be that toddlers spend more time in their play kitchens than we do at the real stove?

Pollan also looks at the subject of working moms and the lost time to cook (and explains how women had to be un-guilted out of their cooking obligations by the clever food companies):

It’s generally assumed that the entrance of women into the work force is responsible for the collapse of home cooking, but that turns out to be only part of the story. Yes, women with jobs outside the home spend less time cooking — but so do women without jobs. The amount of time spent on food preparation in America has fallen at the same precipitous rate among women who don’t work outside the home as it has among women who do: in both cases, a decline of about 40 percent since 1965. (Though for married women who don’t have jobs, the amount of time spent cooking remains greater: 58 minutes a day, as compared with 36 for married women who do have jobs.)
…. After World War II, the food industry labored mightily to sell American women on all the processed-food wonders it had invented to feed the troops: canned meals, freeze-dried foods, dehydrated potatoes, powdered orange juice and coffee, instant everything. As Laura Shapiro recounts in “Something From the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America,” the food industry strived to “persuade millions of Americans to develop a lasting taste for meals that were a lot like field rations.” The same process of peacetime conversion that industrialized our farming, giving us synthetic fertilizers made from munitions and new pesticides developed from nerve gas, also industrialized our eating.

Yuck. I hadn’t made a connection between nerve gas and the industrial food system until just this second. As he goes on to relate, while women did have to be convinced to hang up the apron, the food industry was up to the task:

Shapiro shows that the shift toward industrial cookery began not in response to a demand from women entering the work force but as a supply-driven phenomenon. In fact, for many years American women, whether they worked or not, resisted processed foods, regarding them as a dereliction of their “moral obligation to cook,” something they believed to be a parental responsibility on par with child care. It took years of clever, dedicated marketing to break down this resistance and persuade Americans that opening a can or cooking from a mix really was cooking. Honest. In the 1950s, just-add-water cake mixes languished in the supermarket until the marketers figured out that if you left at least something for the “baker” to do — specifically, crack open an egg — she could take ownership of the cake.

And Pollan helpfully explains what this has to do with health:

A 2003 study by a group of Harvard economists led by David Cutler found that the rise of food preparation outside the home could explain most of the increase in obesity in America. Mass production has driven down the cost of many foods, not only in terms of price but also in the amount of time required to obtain them. The French fry did not become the most popular “vegetable” in America until industry relieved us of the considerable effort needed to prepare French fries ourselves. … When we let corporations do the cooking, they’re bound to go heavy on sugar, fat and salt; these are three tastes we’re hard-wired to like, which happen to be dirt cheap to add and do a good job masking the shortcomings of processed food.

Pollan’s writing about the general subject of the lack of home-cooked fare, and not considering, in particular, the (absent) culinary lives of children. But his point is even more poignant when we consider that children (for the most part!) eat what we give them, and will certainly not complain when a food item has been exquisitely engineered to send their brain chemistry into the stratosphere.

Moreover, since working moms have to pack snacks and lunches, and stay-at-home moms like to leave the house to go to the library or museums, what a toddler eats must be easy, ready-to-go, spoil-proof and unlikely to be rejected. The food industry is all over this assignment — giving us the “children’s aisle” full of yo-go-gurts and organic fruit purees that remove all the healthy fiber and leave behind the sugars.

Most Unsweet

A typical snack given to an 18-month-old is a fruit puree with, say, 15 grams of sugar and a paltry 1 gram of fiber, like this one. (Don’t be fooled by the “Sugars” line, which says only 11 grams; as Marion Nestle explains in What to Eat, hidden sugars — that is, those that the government allows companies to exclude from the label —  can be roughly figured out by looking at the “Total Carbohydrates” line and asking what’s missing.) As a side-note, Plum Organics new “squeezable oatmeal” provides a whopping 18 grams of sugars.

A toddler I knew who always seemed to be jumping off the walls had, the one time I observed it, a snack of a fruit puree paired with a banana — one of the highest glycemic index foods around (contributing another 15.6 grams of convertible sugars) — and pretzels, which lack nutritional value, are high in sodium, and made of white flour the body converts into — you guessed it — sugar.

To put this in context, consider that a teaspoon of sugar is 4.2 grams. So the 30 grams of various sugars from the banana and puree alone is comparable to nearly 8 teaspoons of sugar.

We would never put 8 teaspoons of white sugar in a cup and hand a kid a spoon. Yet that is exactly what we are doing with the “jammin'” fruit smoothies and gummy jelly “fruit” snacks and all the other junk in the kiddo section of the grocery store. Even the healthier-looking options like organic yogurts are full of sugars. And here’s a shocker — a small serving size of Motts apple sauce contains a stunning 22 grams of sugar, which converts to 5.5 teaspoons of sugars.

Here’s the (IMHO far too high) recommendations on sugar consumption from the American Heart Association in 2009:

Preschoolers with a daily caloric intake of 1,200 to 1,400 calories shouldn’t consume any more than 170 calories, or about 4 teaspoons, of added sugar a day. Children ages 4-8 with a daily caloric intake of 1,600 calories should consume no more than 130 calories, or about 3 teaspoons a day. (In order to accommodate all the nutritional requirements for this age group, there are fewer calories available for discretionary allowances like sugar.)

In other words, according to the AHA, that one fruit puree should be it, sugar-wise, for the day (though is an 18-month-old really a “preschooler”? And really, 4 teaspoons?! Even picturing feeding a toddler that much sugar makes we want to hork.).

Not that the guideline is very clear. You may have noted the weasel word “added,” which shows that the AHA’s a bit too in thrall to the titans of sweet stuff. Like Marion Nestle likely would, I would suggest a “food product” like the puree is so devoid of fiber that, in itself, the sugars qualify as “added” sugar, and, more to the point, that the AHA’s use of the word “added” has been rendered functionally meaningless by all the many ways that sugar is concealed these days as “fruit” or fruit-y sounding names.

And that was before scientists — and 60 Minutes — started asking whether sugar is actually toxic. Here’s a recent write-up by Marc Bittman about a new study on that question:

A study published in the Feb. 27 issue of the journal PLoS One links increased consumption of sugar with increased rates of diabetes by examining the data on sugar availability and the rate of diabetes in 175 countries over the past decade. And after accounting for many other factors, the researchers found that increased sugar in a population’s food supply was linked to higher diabetes rates independent of rates of obesity.

In other words, according to this study, it’s not just obesity that can cause diabetes: sugar can cause it, too, irrespective of obesity. And obesity does not always lead to diabetes.

The study demonstrates this with the same level of confidence that linked cigarettes and lung cancer in the 1960s.

As Rob Lustig, one of the study’s authors and a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of California, San Francisco, said to me, “You could not enact a real-world study that would be more conclusive than this one.”

Swimming Upstream

And when toddlers aren’t swimming in sugar, they are often surrounding by salty savories like pretzles or the durn fishies. For a decent break-down of the issues on goldfish crackers specifically — including problematic food dyes, high salt, low fiber and other quibbles (to which I would add the use of non-organic and genetically modified ingredients) see this article.

Unfortunately, the piece rather glosses over the sodium issue. Keep in mind that the FDA “Daily Values” are always for an adult, even if the food is being marketed to and for kids. In fact, the recommended levels for toddlers on sodium are not to exceed 1 gram daily, which makes a (small) serving of crackers that clocks in at 230-250 mgs a full quarter of a toddler’s daily salt intake.

Normal foods have sodium as well, of course, meaning the child could rather easily exceed the daily limit. But the real issue is whether parents are taking the food industry’s cue to develop obedient tastebuds-in-training and whether the crackers, with their fiber-less cutesyness, accomplish anything that toddlers actually nutritionally need for health. As the AHA basically says, empty calories in a child’s diet too often takes the place of where real food needs to be.

The Times piece on addictive foods makes clear that there are certain food combinations rigged to create an addictive quality — including foods that are salty, crunchy and melt away in the mouth. The “melt-away” effect tricks the brain into thinking that the items has no calories. And the marketing triumph here is complete — would parents feed these foods to their young children if they weren’t shaped like fish?

Let’s Do the Time Warp, Again…..

It also often seems like snack recommendations for kids — like these from Parents’ magazine (which were the top post when I googled “healthy toddler snacks”) — are so paralyzed with fear about the obesity crisis that they are utterly stuck in the early 90’s when it comes to nutritional advice. Their list includes processed ham slices and “low-fat cream cheese” as ingredients for healthier fare.

But we know now that processed food is the enemy — not fats per se, and that kids actually need healthy fats (read: unsaturated and some saturated fats like those in milk and coconut) for healthy brain and body development. Among other reasons, healthy fats help build myelin, the basis for neural connections in the brain, and also help satisfy food cravings and reach a feeling of fullness. Certain fats are critical for healthy growth, and children actually use these fats more efficiently than adults do. This is why we still give Maya whole milk, and supplement with high quality fish oil (cleaned of PCBs and other contaminants).

Avoiding fats may actually trigger a larger problem, because the second you look towards “low-fat” foods, you are in the land of chemicals and industrially engineered foods. Fillers, sugar, salt and gums generally take the place of where food should be. We have little idea how many of these additives and substitutes impact human health. And some of the evidence we do have is not reassuring, as the author of Pandora’s Lunchbox, another fright-fest on food, tells us in her well-written but troubling tome.

The other problem with processed foods like crackers or Lunchables is that it is, bacterially speaking, dead. Meaning: cleansed of microbial activity. Michael Pollan’s latest blockbuster article on our “microbiome” of organisms living in our guts has been an eye-opener for me and many others, and makes our lack of cooking and over-consumption of processed foods problematic from a whole new (teeny tiny) point of view. Our children, like us, should be eating real food and playing in the dirt, particularly as the article observes that the basic formations of micro-organisms we carry around in our digestive tract are mainly determined by the ripe old age of three.

Snack-well-er

Unfortunately for me, Maya has figured out that about everyone else in the world has snacks that taste more addictive than hers do, and has developed a preternatural gift for weaseling her way in and mooching off whomever is around. This puts me in the untenable position of having to tell her to put down snacks that some generous person has allowed her to have with a mumbled excuse like, “I’m trying to teach her not to be such a mooch. Ahem.” It’s uncomfortable, to say the least.

So I’m certainly not promising that you’ll be able to fix the situation entirely by dreaming up better snacks for your child. But, FWIW, below are some ideas we’ve used successfully for snacking.

Here’s what I like to see in a snack: 1) Dietary fiber and nutrient density (whole fruits and veggies, grains, nuts and seeds); 2) No sugar or only natural sugars from dried fruits, dates or the like; 3) Low or no sodium; 4) Grains other than wheat, or the use of seeds like flax, chia, wheatberries, etc.; 5) Only a few ingredients and only real foods with no additive, preservatives or other chemicals; 6) Organic if at all possible. Drinks are milk or water, generally speaking, with very little juice.

Specific foods we like as snacks on-the-go:

(just to be clear, none of these are commissioned links)

  • Fruits and veggies (organic berries, apples, grapes and such, cucumbers, carrots, avocado, raw zucchini, lightly cooked broccoli); frozen fruits (or even corn and peas) go right into a container when we leave and are thawed but still cold when ready to be eaten, which Maya loves.
  • With a little prep (really, it’s easy), pickled vegetables are also an option. Here’s my basic recipe, and some fancier ones from the Times.
  • Nuts and seeds — I mix up (organic, unsulphured) sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, raisins, dried cranberries, and shredded coconut. This can be modified, obviously, with any combo you like and is a great and filling snack. Cashews are also great, as they are soft and easy for toddlers to chew.  (Be aware that some brands of almonds are sprayed with a fungicide, and that peanuts can have high levels of pesticides, so organic is best.)
  • Hard-boiled eggs (Look for “grassfed” or “pasture-raised” organic eggs, which have more vitamins and minerals — available at Whole Foods, through CSAs or farmer’s markets; sadly, the label “free-range” means little).
  • Cooked (organic) sweet potatoes, left in the skin to be scooped out with a spoon.
  • Annie Chun’s salty tasting seaweed snack, which Maya loves, has 140 mgs of sodium per box, while the Trader Joe’s brand has 100 mgs. I consider this on the high side, so it’s far from a daily thing. At least seaweed has a good bit of Vitamin A, as well as trace minerals.
  • Organic brown rice cakes with nut butters (cashew, almond, peanut) — changing the nut butter alters the vitamins and other benefits. We like the Artisana brand, which does not have anything added and appears not to have either vinyl or BPA-plastics under the lid, although it is pricey.
  • Date cookies, like the raw, organic ones from Go Raw, which come in a wonderful variety of flavors like carrot, chai, lemon and even chocolate. You can also evidently make your own, which I haven’t yet tried. They are a bit sweet, but so dense that you don’t really eat very many at a sitting.
  • In moderation, dried, organic, unsulphured fruits, including apricots, raisins, dates, papaya wedges. Be aware that dried fruits also contain a lot of sugar, and eat in moderation.
  • Blue corn chips, like the organic ones from Garden of Eatin’ (60 mgs sodium per 11 chips).
  • Seed-based crackers, like Foods Alive Organic Flax Crackers (we like the maple/cinnamon flavor).
  • Good, ol’ fashioned “ants on a log” — the classic celery and nut butter with raisins, which can be assembled at the park from its ingredients.
  • Homemade, organic low-sugar oatmeal cookies or pumpkin muffins with whole wheat flour substituted in; or zucchini or carrot bread with same.
  • Hummus, bien sur — though I can’t find an organic one at the local store, which grrs me. I sometimes make my own from Eden brand (due to their BPA-free cans) chickpeas or dried beans.
  • With refrigeration, wild-caught canned salmon and albacore tuna salads — with real mayonnaise, sliced almonds and celery, even apple in the tuna. These brands are allegedly BPA-free.
  • Plain (organic, grassfed) yogurt with a little fruit jam mixed in. Again, you can freeze this in a (stainless steel) ice-cube tray and let it thaw out over the course of the day.
  • Organic versions of freeze dried fruits, like Nature’s All Foods organic strawberries (available at Whole Foods). These are desserts though, as they utterly lack fiber and are basically distilled down to the fruit sugars.
  • You could try something fancy and European, like this scrumptious pan bagnat, which may work better with a slightly older child. Maya turned her nose up at it, despite enjoying the permission to sit on her sandwich. I intend to try again sometime to get her to eat it sans anchovies, and I enjoyed it very much.
  • Kind bars (though they are not organic, and some of the chocolate-y ones are more like candy). Trader Joe’s also has a few fudgy organic bars that work as a special treat.

What are your ideas for healthier snacks for your child? I can’t wait to add to our list of possibilities!

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Some related posts:

4 thoughts on “ISO: A Truly Healthy Toddler Snack

  1. Sweet potatoes – or yams – preheat your oven to 200 and slice lengthwise into 1/3″ thick slices. Spread the slices on a pan lined with parchment paper and bake for three hours – turn and bake three hours more. Essentially you are dehydrating them – makes your house smell good. After the slices have cooled they can be broken or torn into bits for adding to things, or just as a handy hand held snack. Some result in slightly crisper pieces and some always come out a little chewy or softer – they are fabulous and I feed them to grandchildren, husband and the dog.

    I add nothing to them, but if you really wanted to a bit of cinnamon would be great.

    • Hi Christina! Glad they are useful. Here’s one more I just did the other day: cut an avocado in half and put half in a bag with a spoon. Scoop out at the park or wherever. It will stay fresh for a few hours or so…
      Cheers!
      Laura

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