11 food you should never feed your young children.
This article first appeared on MensJournal.com.
Any dad knows that feeding kids can be a huge headache. Whether you're squeezing in supper before soccer practice, packing lunches before sunup, or just coaxing a picky eater to put something in her mouth, it's often much easier to give kids quick, convenient (and, yes, unhealthy) foods rather than nutritious meals. It doesn't help that chicken fingers, Fruit Roll-Ups, and root beer are the stuff youngsters usually love. You'll never completely ace your kids' diets, nor do you want to deprive them of occasional treats. But there are some foods and drinks you really shouldn't give children more than once in a great while—and a handful that should be off the table entirely. Some of these might surprise you.
1) Apple Juice
"All these juice boxes and pouches parents are always giving kids are essentially just sugar," says Wesley Delbridge, RD, an Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics spokesman who specializes in children's nutrition. "They drink it, get a sugar rush, and then crash."
He says all types of fruit juice are problematic, but he's especially concerned about apple juice, because that's what he sees young kids drinking the most. Parents think it's healthier than orange, grape, or cherry juices, but they're wrong. Even 100 percent apple juice can sack kids with 160 calories a cup—and that's almost entirely fructose, says Delbridge. Plus, they are missing out on the fiber they'd get from eating apples, as well as all the nutrients packed into the peels. Don't buy the hype about juices being fortified with vitamin C and minerals either, he adds, because children aren't usually lacking in these nutrients.
Until your child is 2 years old, never give her honey, says Delbridge. Honey can contain a toxic bacteria that causes botulism, a potentially fatal disease. "This bacteria won't hurt most adults, but young kids' immune systems haven't been built up enough to fight it off," he explains. This bacteria can be present in any type of honey—raw, highly processed, it doesn't matter—so avoid it altogether.
This one should be a no-brainer, since hundreds of studies link soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages to obesity, type 2 diabetes, and aggressive behavior in children. And yet, research shows that a vast majority of American kids are still chugging these drinks. A 20-ounce bottle of soda can have over 60 grams of sugar—some four times what kids should get in an entire day. Syrupy fountain drinks can contain even more. "Children just don't have much room in their diets for beverages that supply a ton of empty calories and no nutrients," says Joan Salge Blake, RD, a health sciences professor at Boston University.
4) Boxed Mac 'n' Cheese
Beside being highly processed and devoid of nutrients, boxed macaroni and cheese is loaded with sodium and preservatives, which can condition kids' developing palates to crave more salty, artificial foods, says Delbridge. Plus, given the long list of non-food ingredients, you don't really know what you're feeding them.
The other problem with boxed mac 'n' cheese is when you toss a package in your cart and cook the contents up in minutes, kids don't get a sense of where their food comes from. Since noodles and cheese sauce is simple to make from scratch, take them shopping for whole-grain pasta, fresh cheese, and other ingredients and have them help you cook. "When they see that food doesn't just magically appear from a box, they'll be more invested in what they're eating," Delbridge says.
5) Fruit Snacks
Gummy fruit snacks, fruit rolls, and jellies are nothing but sugar. View them like candy instead of a lunchtime snack, says Delbridge. A lot of fruit snacks now say "made with real fruit" or "made with real fruit juice," but those claims still boil down to lots of added sugar. If you're looking for an easy snack with some actual nutrition, go with dried real fruit instead.
6) Canned Tuna
Fish can be an excellent source of lean protein, healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals, so it's great to get kids hooked on it early. But the same kinds of fish you enjoy sparingly because of their high mercury content—swordfish, king mackerel, tilefish, canned albacore tuna—you shouldn't share with your children. "Fish that are high in mercury can affect the nervous system of young kids," Salge Blake says.
7) Granola Bars
"I see so many dads giving their kids granola bars thinking they're a healthy snack," Delbridge says. "But most bars offer very little protein and fiber, and they hit kids with so much sugar all at once that it's the same as feeding them candy."
You don't have to write off granola bars entirely. Just read ingredients lists to make sure they contain real nuts, fruit, whole grains, and no high-fructose corn syrup or other added sugars. "In general, the fewer ingredients listed the better," Delbridge says. You can also whip up a batch of granola bars at home. He recommends using granola, dried fruit, almonds, walnuts, a bit of honey (if your kid is over 2), and a dash of brown sugar and cinnamon.
8) Sports Drinks
There's no good reason to give your kid Gatorade, Delbridge says. The only time anyone might need a sugary sports drink is if they've just knocked out an intense hour-long workout and want some quick calories and electrolytes to help recover. Odds are this won't be your child. Even if he's just been subbed out of his soccer game, water should do the trick, Delbridge says. If it's sweltering hot or if he's been playing for a long stretch without a break, sliced oranges and other fruits are much better way to replace lost vitamins and minerals than a sports drink.
9) Flash-Fried Frozen Finger Foods
Frozen chicken nuggets, fish sticks, and mozzarella sticks are usually sky-high in sodium, saturated fat, and preservatives and contain poor-quality chicken, fish, or cheese. Even though many brands are now using all breast meat or "whole muscle," Delbridge says they're often still flash-fried to make the batter stick, which keeps their fat and calorie counts too high for kids. If you rely on frozen finger foods from time to time, that's okay, he adds, but sure to buy brands that use whole-grain breading and haven't been flash-fried. You can tell that by looking at the saturated fat content.
10) Dipping Sauces
Unless you're using a dipping sauce to convince kids to eat more veggies, don't introduce them to condiments—including ketchup. "With foods like chicken fingers and hamburgers that taste good already, there's no need to get them used to having extra sauces," Delbridge says. "Condiments can add hundreds of calories and extra fat to a meal." If they're already into bbq sauce or ketchup, start measuring out 1- to 2-ounce servings in a small dish rather than handing them the whole bottle. If they like ranch dressing, try swapping in Greek yogurt mixed with seasonings.
11) Raw Milk
Even if you believe raw milk is healthier than pasteurized because the digestive enzymes and other nutrients remain intact, know that it's very risky for kids to drink. "Milk that hasn't been pasteurized is more likely to cause food-borne illness," says Salge Blake. "Since children's immune systems aren't as developed as adults', they're more susceptible."