Healthy Foods: Your Kids Will Eat Them!
Karla Robinson, MD
Have you ever been frustrated with a picky eater? Wondering how to raise a child that enjoys healthy food options? Not sure how to substitute healthy food items on a budget?
We interviewed Kristine Smith, R.D., Director of Nutrition Services at the Neighborhood House Association in San Diego, California. She is revolutionizing the way thousands of preschoolers are eating by offering healthy, nutritionally packed, fresh foods daily. As a result, their families have also begun to adopt healthy habits and make nutritionally sound choices as it relates to their daily meals.
The nutrition program at the Neighborhood House Association has tremendously impacted the lives of the preschool children they service. Read on to find out how you too can revolutionize the way your family eats, and create those healthy habits that last a lifetime.
UHM: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today about the fascinating things you are doing in the area of nutrition in San Diego. Can you give our readers a little background on the Neighborhood House Association and what it has to offer the San Diego community?
KS: The Neighborhood House Association has been around for over 100 years and is San Diego’s third largest nonprofit. The largest program we offer is our Head Start program providing free childcare for preschool age children from low income families, but we also offer many others including adult day care, senior nutrition programs, and mental health programs just to name a few.
UHM: The Neighborhood House has been recognized as revolutionizing the typical preschool diet. What are some of the ways you have enhanced the preschool nutrition program?
KS: We believe that at the preschool age, children are building life-long, sustainable behaviors. As a dietician and the Director of Nutrition Services at Neighborhood House, I felt it was absolutely my responsibility to make sure that we are serving healthy meals, and that every bite of food that our kids eat are nutrient dense and tasty too.
While the agency has always met federal guidelines in serving our meals, there is no standard requiring you to serve fresh produce, or to limit salt or fat. I felt we could do a much better job.
UHM: How do your menus compare to the typical preschool diet?
KS: In addition to being nutrient dense, we brought in a chef to make sure our meals are tasty, colorful, and cooked from scratch. We have eliminated all of the canned produce and now all of our fruits and vegetables are mostly fresh and occasionally frozen. We have taken our menus from opening boxes and reheating, to one where we have recipes that we are using and the food is cooked fresh every single day.
It’s also a little bit fancier than people would assume that preschoolers might eat. We have things on our menu like tri-color rotini with mushroom and beef Bolognese sauce, salmon tacos, turkey in sun-dried tomato sauce with penne pasta, roasted zucchini with mushroom, and caesar salad. We are happy that we can do this for the children and they love to eat it.
UHM: Those menu items sound absolutely amazing! Is there any one menu item that you were surprised that the kids enjoyed so much?
KS: We have really broken down the mindset that kids won’t eat certain foods. As adults, we are typically the ones that think that. But we at Neighborhood House Association have proven that kids will eat different foods. I must say though, that I was really surprised with the hummus. I didn’t know that it would go over so well.
UHM: Do you see yourselves as pioneers in this push toward offering more healthy food choices for our children?
KS: I definitely see us as pioneers and leaders in our community. I consider us a model program that could be replicated throughout the country. I think that there is a ton of focus on school food service right now. First Lady Obama’s Let’s Move campaign has brought so much attention and a call to action for everyone including food service professionals, parents, and the community. I do see a huge wave of change coming, but it is a process.
UHM: Did you face any opposition from parents or community leaders when you were trying to implement the program?
KS: Yes, but I think change doesn’t normally happen without some opposition. We had some concern from parents when we rolled out our menu for the first time in 2008. We went from serving processed foods that were very familiar to the kids like chicken nuggets, fish sticks, and pizza, to serving our new menu in just 3 months. So it was a bit of a shock and parents were a bit concerned that their kids wouldn’t eat.
UHM: How were you able to reassure your parents and ease their concerns?
KS: There is a ton of research that shows if you offer a new food item repeatedly, and you offer a role model of someone eating that food item, kids will eat it. We serve family style so all of the kids can see their friends eating the foods as well. I tried to make the parents feel comfort in knowing all of this. Maybe they wouldn’t eat it the first time, or maybe even the second time, but if we kept offering it they would.
UHM: What are some of the tangible benefits that you have seen in the lives of the families you service as a result of your unique nutritional program?
KS: One of the things that we pride ourselves on is having a menu that is a teaching tool. We want the parents to go home and want to cook the foods that we serve on our menu. We want the parents to be inspired to go home and cook family style dinners and to sit down together as a family and these things have happened.
One student went home after having enjoying salmon nicoise and the mom was so surprised not ever having cooked salmon, and not knowing her child liked it. She was then inspired to go home and make it for her family.
On our parent surveys, we have found that several of the parents are asking for our recipes and that several of the children have been asking their parents to make the menu items at home. These are the things that let me know we are doing the right things and that we are really impacting our families.
UHM: There are some parents that know they need to make a change in their children’s diet but either don’t know how to make traditional meals healthier, or that feel they can’t afford healthy options when shopping for food. How have you been able to successfully educate your parents in San Diego about healthy food choices?
KS: It is common thinking that processed foods are cheaper and it tends to make those foods attractive. I am often asked how we are able to afford to cook all of these foods from scratch. Our budget has not increased at all as a result. One of the things that we do is that we balance the more expensive items with cheaper items. We are able to put salmon on our menu because I balance it with things like dried beans or rice or pasta. By having the cheaper staple items frequently we are able to balance that.
Creating homemade meals is cheaper than buying processed food. It might cost a little bit more because you buy larger quantities but these things can also be used as leftovers. These are some of the things that we share with our parents.
UHM: What are some quick and easy basic tips that you can share with our readers on how they can start making healthy meals at home for their families?
KS: Ideally it would be to shop all organic. But I understand that this isn’t a reality for most people. I think my best tip would be to shop locally as much as possible. Locally grown foods are seasonal, they taste better, and they are going to be more nutrient dense than anything. Another thing would be to prioritize. Think of ways to reprioritize so food is at the top of your list, because it’s just that important. Food is the single most important basic need. We all have busy lives but find a way to reprioritize and make food choices just a little bit more important. Parents can be the best role model for their children.
UHM: Ok, give me five staple healthy food items that every household should have on their grocery list and why?
KS: I have to preface this a little bit, because it is really hard for me to pick just five. While healthy food is best, I do want to say that all food is good food. I never want anyone to feel like they have to avoid any one food item. That being said, I do hope that we can get away from the processed foods. For the top five, I would definitely have to say sweet potatoes because they are so nutrient dense and they are so colorful. One of the snacks that we do here is sweet potato yogurt and the kids love it. Another would be spinach because it is definitely packed with nutrients. I also love for people to eat any kind of greens including collards, mustard, kale, etc. However, we just have to cook them in a way that is without all of the fat. Maybe try using olive oil and not as much salt. I would also say dried beans including black eyed peas, lentils, pinto beans etc. They are all very good and nutrient dense. Lastly, I would have to say fish. I hate that I am excluding red meat, because I think it is definitely important. But I would say that in this country we eat a ton of red meat. It is best to minimize the red meat and maximize the fish a little bit more.
UHM: Thank you so much Kristine for your time and for sharing with us some amazing tips on how to keep our kids healthy by providing proper nutrition.
For more information on the model nutritional program for children at the Neighborhood House Association, or for menus or recipe ideas, please visit http://www.neighborhoodhouse.org/nutrition_services.