As a nutrition expert who consults with and writes for other Moms about how to best feed their families, I sometimes feel pressure to be the perfect feeding role model; to post pictures of my son and I chopping freshly-picked-out-of-our-backyard-garden tomatoes for homemade salsa or to write about why homemade hummus is just as easy (and much healthier) than the store-bought stuff.
Well, I have a confession to make. I'm a Mom and a Registered Dietitian who feeds her kids packaged foods sometimes. I'm not perfect. And it's time to get real.
Becoming a Mom of two has rocked my world in so many ways, including my views on nutrition. Although I strive to feed my kids mostly whole foods (and am lucky enough that they eat them most of the time), I also know that this isn't realistic 100% of the time. While I once thought flavoured yogurt wasn't healthy enough (it HAD to be plain), I now think of it as a healthy, kid-friendly snack. I also vowed that I would never feed my child boxed macaroni and cheese, but now that I've experienced it's life-saving capabilities on those rare occasions when I'm solo-parenting and have run out of groceries, I've slightly changed my tune.
It's true that most packaged, processed foods contain preservatives, additives, and artificial flavours - they are not perfect (and some processed foods are unhealthy enough that I won't offer them to my kids)--but in my mind, healthy eating isn't synonymous with "perfect eating." Instead, healthy eating allows for fun, convenience, and imperfection once in a while, and that's ok. I know my kids eat whole fresh foods in the majority of cases, so the odd processed and packaged food doesn't worry me; nor should it worry any parent who is trying to do their best.
These pouches have literally saved my sanity on more than one occasion. I admit, they are not equivalent to real fruit and vegetables by any stretch of the imagination - ideally, fruits and veggies should be eaten, not sucked out of a pouch - but they often come in handy when we're out and about, and they add some fun and variety to kids' snack rotation. This also goes for pureed unsweetened fruit cups. I look for varieties that contain less than 10 grams of sugar per pouch and limit them to no more than two or three times a week.
Whether it's wax-wrapped mini cheese rounds (Baby Bell), triangle spreadable cheese (Swiss Knight or Laughing Cow) or even cheese strings, these portable individually wrapped cheeses come in handy when on-the-go (or in lunch kits!). Although slicing brick cheese and wrapping it yourself might arguably be just as convenient, sometimes tossing an already-wrapped cheese in your purse or diaper bag is just easier (and just as healthy). Individually wrapped or not, cheese is also nutritious. It contains many essential nutrients including protein, calcium, and magnesium and can make a great addition to a snack or meal.
Sally Kuzemchak, Registered Dietitian and author of the blog "Real Mom Nutrition" wrote a great piece on why she serves Ranch dressing to her kids. Sally talks about how although store-bought Ranch dressing isn't perfect, it encourages her son to eat raw veggies and green salads--healthy foods that he may not happily munch on without his favourite dip. I couldn't agree more - if offering a bit of Ranch or Caesar dressing increases the likelihood of my son happily eating his vegetables, I have no problem with it. After all, I prefer dip with my veggies, so why would I expect that my son wouldn't?
Hummus makes for a nutritious protein and fibre-rich dip for veggies or crackers, or spread for sandwiches. I regularly buy hummus from the store, not because I refuse to make my own (which I do sometimes), but because I find that most store-bought varieties contain similar ingredients that I would use anyway and because, frankly, I find it easier at this stage of life with two young kids. Yes, it may contain more olive oil than I would add or a few preservatives, but sometimes convenience trumps perfection.
I confess that I've tried to make my own version of ketchup from scratch. It's not the same. Yes, Heinz Ketchup contains liquid sugar and salt, but it also contains tomato paste and it helps my son enjoy the homemade vegetable frittata that I often make him for dinner, as well as the homemade yam fries that I serve with with roast chicken. He even dips his carrot sticks in it sometimes which makes me both cringe and smile at the same time.
Whole grain crackers can serve as the perfect vehicle for healthier foods such as natural peanut butter and banana slices, hummus and cucumber or cheese and apple slices. I often make peanut butter or cheese "crackerwiches" for snack time, which my kids absolutely love. Try to find a variety with a short ingredients list featuring "whole grain (insert type of grain)" as the first ingredient. And if you DO have time to make homemade crackers, try this delicious recipe: Homemade Raincoast Crisps.
Although I'm fairly picky with the flavoured yogurt that I buy, I buy it nonetheless. Yes, plain Greek yogurt is the best choice, and yes, adding fruit for flavour is better than the sugary fruit-like substance that appears at the bottom of most small yogurt containers. But flavoured Greek yogurt tends to be more appealing to kids (sweet tastes are universally preferred over bitter or sour) and makes for a tasty, easy and nutritious snack in my mind. I like Greek yogurt because it contains double the amount of protein than regular, which can help to keep your kids fuller and satisfied for longer. When it comes to sugar content, try to choose a variety with less than 11 grams of sugar per 100 gram serving (4 of those grams are naturally occurring). If you can find a variety free of gelatin, artificial colours and flavours and preservatives, that's a great bonus.
I do prefer to make tomato sauce from scratch, where I can control each ingredient and their amounts within, but when time is short and I need to whip up a healthy meal in minutes, I turn to our favourite jarred tomato pasta sauces. Paired with lean ground meat and fresh chopped veggies, jarred tomato sauce can be a life-saver on busy nights. It's true that it likely contains more sodium than a home-made version would and perhaps some sugar and preservatives, but it still counts as a vegetable and fairs very well in the nutrition department compared to other sauces.
When time allows, I make salsa from scratch (it's one of my favourite foods), but because it's such a popular item in our house, I often feel like I can't keep up. Although often higher in sodium, salsa can make for a nutritious dip or sauce and can add a lot of flavour to certain dishes (like my Easy Cheesy Family-Friendly Burritos). Bonus: If it's tomato salsa we're talking about, it counts as a vegetable serving!
When I prepare meat or poultry, I make an effort to cook extra for sandwiches, wraps, homemade pizza and salads throughout the week. But when I've run out of fresh meat or simply need a quick and easy protein option, I will turn to canned light flaked tuna or canned salmon. Canned tuna or salmon can add variety to your meals, is inexpensive, and boasts plenty of Omega-3 fatty acid, Vitamin D, Iron, and protein among other important nutrients. Canned salmon has the added benefit of the soft salmon bones, which provide a great source of calcium. When choosing canned tuna, go for "light", "skipjack" or "tongol" which are lower in mercury, instead of "albacore" or "white", which tend to be higher.
If you found this helpful, you may also like this post outlining the five phrases that will end mealtime struggles for good as well as this one listing my top 15 Dietitian-appoved lunchbox staples.
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