Third Thursdays: Hey There, Sugar

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The ever-fabulous (and fun) One Hungry Mama is our resident Mother on a Mission, aiming to get us eating and serving good, healthy, colorful, fresh food at home. As OHM puts it, “Kids change the way we cook, but they don’t have to change how well we eat.” So, every Third Thursday of the month, OHM + MMM will be chopping it up in an e-mail exchange about good food and even better family.

After a brief pause for the summer (as in, the month of August), we’re back at it! Join the discussion.


From:     Ms. Mary Mack
Subject:  Hey There, Sugar

Date:     September 12, 2011 8:24 PM EDT
To:       One Hungry Mama

Back when The Youngster was in full-on parrot mode, I would often say, pointing at our candy jar in the foyer: “Candies are not for babies.” Funny to hear him repeat it, complete with serious face. But what’s more, I think the message kind of stuck with him. Even now as a 2.5-year-old,  he’d rather you offer hime a dry cracker than a cookie. And he thinks chocolates/candies are tiny things you toss around like toys. No interest in eating them at all. Curious, how do you keep the sugar ship at bay in your household? I know it’s about setting examples + having good eating habits all your own, but I want to talk more practical stuff … like how do you get really young kids on the right foot about sugar and sweet treats?

Happy we’re back on the chat!


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From:     One Hungry Mama
Subject: Re: Hey There, Sugar
Date:     September 14, 2011 4:579PM EDT
To:         Ms. Mary Mack

The sugar ship — ha! Love it. It’s a mighty ship, that one, very difficult to navigate. So difficult, in fact, that I suggest you find a place to dock and throw the anchor overboard. Your ship will surely sway with the tides, shifting this way and that, but it won’t go completely adrift. And that’s what you want to avoid because once you go adrift, it’s very difficult to find your way back to safe waters.

You’re right to make a distinction between fast food and sugar. They are different. First off, fast food is completely worthless edible non-food stuff. Natural, unprocessed sugar, on the other hand, has an important place in our diet. Secondly, though the golden arches can be found on all four corners of the globe, sugar is more ubiquitous. One recent study  found that over 50% of packaged baby/toddler foods found in Canadian grocery stores had excessive sugar. In some products sampled, over 20% of the caloric content came from sugar. You can see this for yourself by looking at the shockingly high sugar content of most packaged breads, yogurts or tomato sauce. Avoiding sugar isn’t as simple as avoiding “sugary” snack foods, it’s about watching nearly everything you eat.

That said, my thinking on sugar is very similar to my thinking on fast food. Feeding is a parenting issue no matter what food you’re serving and, like all effective parenting, consistency is key. So, just like with fast food, when it comes to sugar I focus on managing what my kids eat while they are with me, managing what they eat while away from me for as long as I can and, then, letting go with confidence that our healthy eating habits have made a lasting imprint.

I could easily philosophize about this stuff for hours—as evidenced by our convo about Mickey D’s— but I know that you want to get down to brass tacks. Here are some of the ways that I manage sugar intake at home:

*Skip the juice. The American Academy of Pediatrics has come out saying that juice is completely unnecessary to any child’s diet. And not just babies — even big kids. The predominant ingredient in juice is water, then carbohydrates including sucrose, fructose and glucose, which are basically forms of sugar. The sugar content in juice is extraordinarily high and it doesn’t offer most of the healthy minerals that you get from eating whole fruit. That good stuff gets juiced out, so to speak. The same goes for juices with “added vegetables.” Kids tend to drink juice in quantity because of its sweet taste and the perception that juice is good for you. That has led the AAP to compare juice to soda in some cases.

*Make your own fun drinks or “soda.” Make lemonade. Combine higher-sugar, flavored yogurt drinks with plain kefir. Add a touch of fresh squeezed juice or fruity homemade simple syrup to flat or fizzy water. These are still sugary, but you can control the amount. Best yet, make infused waters or just add sliced fresh fruit to kiddo’s water glass.

*Start with plain yogurt. Kids’ yogurts are totally out of control, and I’m not just talking about the marketing around them. Please, please: buy plain yogurt. You can add fresh fruit (with honey and vanilla) or defrosted frozen fruit for little one who prefer fruit-on-the bottom consistency. In a pinch, you can combine their favorite sugary kids’ yogurt with plain. If kiddo needs a wacky package to feel satisfied, give them one! Have them decorate a plain bowl or mug with stickers of their favorite things or characters and, voila, their new yogurt cup.

*Make homemade snacks. I know, I know. It can be a total pain in the butt if you’re not into cooking or barely have time, which pretty much accounts for 99.9% of you. You’ll be amazed, though, at how much sugar you can cut out of your child’s diet without them even noticing. Making things yourself not only allows you to limit the amount of sugar, but also the kind of sugar in kiddo’s food. Why does that matter? Because honey is better than high fructose corn syrup. Period. Many homemade snacks can be stored for at least a week, like granola bars or peanut butter cracker sandwiches (mixing 3/4 cup of peanut butter with 7 teaspoons of honey makes a sweet-enough sandwich filling for store bought or homemade crackers and has way less sugar than the store bought variety).

Other things, like simple cheese cracker dough or (fully baked) mini-muffins can be made in big batches and frozen. My kids love zucchini muffins and sweet potato muffins, both of which have less sugar than store bought and have added veggies. Trail mix is another great go-to that barely takes any time: just mix together a big ol’ bag of walnuts, sunflower seeds, dried fruit (deceptively high in sugar; keep to a minimum) and dehydrated fruit. You can even throw in a handful of mini-chocolate chips which will make kiddo swoon and still keep their sugar intake lower than if chowing on a store bought mix.

*In fact, make as much homemade as possible. Pasta sauce, pizza sauce, soups and pancake mix are just a few examples of things that are easy to make more delicious and lower sugar at home. If you’re not ready to jump into from-scratch cooking with both feet, start by taking stock of your pantry. Compare the sugar content of packaged staples that you buy regularly and start by making one or two homemade.

*Make bread yourself or buy fresh from the bakery. Fresh bread made by an actual person, as opposed to a factory machine, is going to have less sugar than the shelf-stable kind that stays good on supermarket shelves for months. Any bakery worth its salt should be able to slice loaves for you so that it’s just like the kind you’re used to. Store fresh loaves of sandwich bread in the fridge for the week and keep any slices or loaves that you won’t get to within 5-7 days in the freezer. When you’re running low, move slices from the freezer to the fridge for a defrost or pop individual slices into the toaster.

*Pack healthy snacks from home when on-the-go. Don’t rely on friends or concession stands to have healthy options — pack your own. Start kiddo off with whole fruits and veggies and, once their tummy is full with good stuff, hand over the granola bar, whether homemade or a brand that you’ve vetted and trust.

*If you can’t make it homemade, look at the food label on the back of the package. Front of package claims are not regulated the same way as nutrition labels. When you look on the back, you want to see just a handful of familiar ingredients. You should also note the sugar content. If you’re serving a carb snack that’s whole grain (e.g., cereal or granola bar), Dr. Sears suggests looking for a carb-to-sugar ratio of no less than four to one. So, if the total carb content is 24 grams, the item should have 6 grams of sugar or less.

*Be clear, but don’t make a huge deal about it. As your child grows, they are going to see — and probably covet — the sugary treats that other kids get to eat. For a while, you’ll still have control and I urge you to use it, but don’t carry on. The more that you do, the more forbidden the treat, the more kiddo will crave it. A simple but firm, “Not now,” or, if it’s something you just won’t feed your kids, “We don’t eat that — it’s unhealthy for our bodies,” is enough. Your kid will surely carry on, but stay calm and quiet. They heard you and there’s no need to turn it into a court case.

*Talk about food! Educate your kids about food, sugar, what’s good for them, what’s not and why. Bring them into the conversation and give them choices. They want to be and feel healthy, too — if you talk to them about it and help them make smart choices, they will. At least, eventually!

Some of you may be looking for a simple answer to the question: How much sugar should my kid take in per day? Me, too! Unfortunately, that’s not an easy question to answer since all sugar is not created equally. A packaged granola bar, for example, may have dates packed with natural sugar and also added cane juice.

While sugar needs to be limited overall, the cane juice is more of a concern and, sadly, there’s no way for us to tell how much of a food’s total sugar content is naturally occurring and how much was added processed sugar. One concrete measurement that helps me is that 4 grams of sugar equals 1 teaspoon. Does it feel right for 3/4 of a cup of cereal to have 15 grams — nearly 4 teaspoons — of sugar? Yea, not to me either. Move on and look for another cereal.

And what happens when our kids are too old for us to control what they eat when they are not with us? You keep in mind that there is only so much that you can do—that’s what. If you do what you can while you do have control — eat well, serve whole foods, pack healthy snacks, say “no” when appropriate and splurge, too — it will all work out. Eventually!

One last note: be wary of sugar-free snacks. They usually contain artificial sweeteners, and we don’t yet fully understand the long-term health ramifications of them.

Talk more soon,

Stacie, aka One Hungry (and Sweet) Mama


Curious … how do you fight the sugar battle at home with your wee ones? Leave all comments below. Let’s chop it up!

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