- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 7, 2006

It’s winter, and the children have been sitting inside for too many months. The TV is on. Books are out. Cards are strewn. And the refrigerator is nearby. There’s nothing active about it. And it’s making me nervous. Let’s backtrack for a second. When I raised my two daughters, childhood obesity wasn’t the epidemic it is now. According to the 2005 edition of America’s Health Rankings report, 23.1 percent of the U.S. population is considered obese, up from 22.8 percent in 2004.

Improvements in Americans’ health have hit a plateau because of obesity and smoking. The New York Times reported in a recent Sunday Styles section that chic New Yorkers are giving their children memberships to tony Manhattan health clubs to get them off the couch.

Then there are the families on the current “The Biggest Loser” TV show. While it is certainly terrific that they are learning healthy eating and exercise techniques, it kind of begs the question: How can we stop obesity before it gets started? That’s what I wanted to find out.

With a family history of obesity, I worried endlessly about everything that went into my daughters’ mouths. Or didn’t go in. And now that I have a second family of two sweet adopted boys from Russia and Ukraine, I’m thinking about it again.

Keeping our children lean, mean, growing machines needn’t be so riddled with angst.

“Weight isn’t just a kid’s issue,” says nutritionist Bethany Thayer, spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association and author of “Heart Smart Kids Cookbook” (Detroit Free Press). “It’s the whole family’s issue. Examine the home environment. Are there too many snacks in the house? Not enough physical activity? Exercise is one key to combating obesity. Improved food habits is the other.”

Miss Thayer is a Detroit-based registered dietitian whose specialty is helping families work through childhood weight issues. Over a 16-year career, she has developed guidelines that we can all use to teach our children how to live healthy and nutritionally sound lives.

She offers these 10 tips for raising children to become lean adults:

• Be a role model. You can’t expect your child to reach for milk and veggies when the parent is eating chips and soda. We underestimate how closely children are watching us. If we’re snacking on baby carrots and low-fat rice cakes, our children will probably want to try them out, too. They think we’re smart … for the moment, at least.

• Provide a variety of healthful, great-tasting meals at regularly scheduled times. When you expose your children to new foods over and over, they will see that it’s OK to eat it. Sometimes it may take 10 or 11 tries before your child will learn to like it. If your first try at omelets doesn’t go over well, keep trying. Or maybe try a child-friendly version of quiche called breakfast pie. It contains vegetables and mushrooms but lots of cheese. To make it healthier, use low- and reduced-fat cheese.

• Let your child decide how much to eat. We need to get away from the “clean plate” syndrome. It’s important for children to recognize their own hunger and also know when it’s time to stop eating. Tossing out a tablespoon or two of rice will not break the bank. If it’s steak or shrimp, set it aside and take it for your own lunch the next day.

m Avoid calling foods good or bad. Parents need to show how to fit all foods into a diet. Don’t label foods “treats” or ban them because doing so labels them “good” or “bad.” If children fill up on more healthful foods, they won’t consume as many foods low in nutrition. Instead of soda, try grape fizz, a combination of grape juice, lime and club soda. The children will love the flavor and you will love the fact that they are drinking fruit juice instead of sugar water.

• Eat as many meals as possible together as a family. Families can plan meals together and talk about nutrition. Who knows? Maybe parents will learn a few things, too.

• Don’t bribe with food. You shouldn’t bribe your children to eat their vegetables in order to get dessert. It only teaches them to value dessert. And desserts need not be only cake and cookies. A parfait of colorful fruit layered with yogurt in a bowl can be a delicious and beautiful dessert. The same is true of banana-nut chocolate chip bread.

• Don’t use food as a reward. If they’ve done well in school or finished a task, use verbal praise, hugs and kisses. That goes much further in the long run.

• Allow your children to be part of meal planning. Let them pick the vegetables for the evening. If children see vegetables on the table regularly, it will become a natural part of the meal, not something that will scare them away from eating. Entice them with new takes on vegetables. Spring pea soup with a swirl of plain yogurt could be perfect for the job.

• Avoid talk at the table about dieting, counting calories or feeling fat. Keep dinner together a time for enjoying good food and pleasurable social exchanges.

• Teach children to cook. They can start as young as 2 by dumping the flour into the bowl. When they are older, they are more likely to prepare their own healthful meals. Begin with a tradition of after-school smoothies that the children make in the blender. Combine fresh fruit with vanilla yogurt and, maybe, a little fruit juice and a few ice cubes. The result will be a snack and a cooking lesson that sets them on the path to lifelong healthy nutrition.

Grape fizz

8 lime slices

5 cups club soda, chilled

3 cups unsweetened grape juice, chilled

Place lime slice in each glass. Combine club soda and grape juice. Pour over lime. Makes 8 ½-cup servings.

Sweet pea soup

1 tablespoon oil

1 10-ounce package frozen peas, thawed

1 head Boston lettuce, washed, drained, patted dry, chopped

4 scallions, chopped

5 cups low-sodium canned chicken broth

Coarse or cracked ground pepper

6 teaspoons plain, low-fat yogurt

Pour oil into heavy large saucepan over low heat. Add peas, lettuce and scallions, and cook until scallions are just soft, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes. Add broth, increase heat and bring to a boil.

Reduce heat and simmer until peas are tender, 8 minutes. Cool. Puree soup in batches in blender. Season to taste with pepper. Reheat in saucepan until warmed through. Ladle soup into bowls. Garnish each bowl with a swirl of 1 teaspoon of yogurt. Makes 6 servings.

Breakfast pie

Nonstick vegetable oil cooking spray

8 ounces cooked, cubed extra-lean ham

½ cup sliced mushrooms

2 medium onions, chopped

1 small green bell pepper, chopped

8 egg whites

2 ounces (½ cup) shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese

2 ounces (½ cup) shredded fat-free cheddar cheese

3/4 cup skim milk

Dash freshly ground black pepper

Spray a 9-inch round pan with vegetable oil cooking spray. Set aside.

Spread ham over bottom of pan. Top evenly with mushrooms, onion and green pepper. In a medium bowl, whisk together egg whites, mozzarella cheese, cheddar cheese, skim milk and pepper to taste. Pour over vegetables in pan.

Bake in preheated 375-degree oven for 45 minutes, or until knife inserted in center comes out clean. Remove from oven and place on wire cooling rack. Makes 6 servings.

Banana-nut chocolate chip bread

Nonstick cooking spray

1½ cups mashed ripe bananas (about 3 medium)

11/4 cups sugar

6 egg whites

1/3 cup sweetened applesauce

1 tablespoon vanilla

21/4 cups all-purpose flour

3/4 cup quick-cooking oats

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

½ cup (3 ounces) semisweet chocolate chips

½ cup chopped walnuts

Spray two 8-by-4-by-2-inch loaf pans with nonstick cooking spray. Set aside.

In a mixing bowl, beat together bananas, sugar, egg whites, applesauce and vanilla.

In another bowl, combine flour, oats, cinnamon, baking powder, baking soda and nutmeg. Stir dry ingredients into banana mixture. Fold in chocolate chips and walnuts. Evenly divide batter between the two loaf pans.

Bake in preheated 350-degree oven for 55 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean. Remove from oven, cool 10 minutes in pans, then invert on wire racks to cool.

Makes about 24 servings.

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