Make healthful eating fun for kids

I’m trying to get my children to eat healthier, but they constantly ask for high-sugar cereal and other foods that aren’t good for them. How can I entice them to eat healthier foods?

First, remember that they’re kids. Mealtimes (and snack times, too) should be good, even fun, experiences.

But that doesn’t mean they have to consist entirely of cookies and candy. One thing to think about, even with fruits and vegetables, is presentation. It can make all the difference.

A study published recently in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine examined elementary school children’s choices between a cookie and an apple (or both) at the end of their cafeteria serving line. The number of kids choosing apples skyrocketed when the apples had a sticker featuring Elmo, a popular character from Sesame Street. Interestingly, putting a sticker of an unknown character also increased apple choice, but not by nearly as much.

Another study, published in Pediatrics in 2010, showed that children were more likely to choose a snack — whether it was gummy bears or baby carrots — if the wrapper had a familiar character on it (in this case, the characters tested included Shrek, Scooby-Doo and Dora the Explorer).

The findings suggest that the makers of healthy foods can use marketing and branding concepts to increase their products’ appeal to children much the same way as big-name processed foods have done for decades. But it can be expensive. According to the Federal Trade Commission, the food industry spends an estimated $1.6 billion annually to market food and beverages directly to children and teens.

Still, there are a few things you can do at home to boost your children’s interest in healthy food:

  • Let your kids help in the kitchen. Even children as young as 2 can help wipe tables, tear lettuce or greens, snap green beans, and rinse produce. Getting kids involved with meal preparation will increase their enthusiasm to eat the foods they help prepare.
  • Help your kids make fun, healthy snacks. Ideas include “Bugs on a Log,” made by filling celery with a little peanut butter and placing raisins on top, or “Fruit Kebobs,” made by putting melon balls and cubes of fruit on a stick.
  • Most of all, be a good role model. Pile those vegetables high on your dinner plate. Drink your milk. Choose whole-grain foods you enjoy, and share them with your children. As with anything, children learn more from watching what you do than from listening to what you say.

Behavior changes key in weight loss

What are some of the things people do (besides eating less) to help them lose weight successfully?

That’s an interesting question. Most people, for obvious reasons, focus on food when trying to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight.

But behavioral scientists studying successful weight loss have found a few strategies beyond cutting calories that seem to work for many who have lost weight and kept it off.

In a recent study in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, researchers at the University of Minnesota studied behaviors of more than 400 people who successfully lost at least 10 percent of their body weight in the past year. The researchers grouped the behaviors in four major categories:

  • Regularity of meals: People who tended to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner routinely were more likely to have better success at weight loss during the past year. They were also more likely to eat more fruits and vegetables.
  • TV-related viewing and eating: Participants were asked how often they ate snacks or meals in front of the television, how much TV they watched on an average day, and how often they ate after 7 p.m. Those who were more likely to engage in those behaviors tended to have a higher BMI (or body mass index, a standard measure of body fat based on height and weight) and higher fat and sugar intake.
  • Eating away from home: These behaviors include eating out at a restaurant (sit down or fast food); eating food provided by an employer or another employee at work; purchasing food at a convenience store or a gas station; and purchasing food items for a fundraiser. People who did these things more often had a higher fat and sugar intake and a lower fruit and vegetable intake, and engaged in less physical activity.
  • Intentional strategies for weight control: Participants were asked how often they wrote down the amount and type of exercise they engaged in, as well as the calorie content of the food they ate; how often they planned meals and exercise in order to manage their weight; and how often they used meal replacements. Those who did these things more often saw many benefits: they tended to have a lower BMI; they experienced greater weight loss in the last year; they had a lower fat and sugar intake; they ate more fruits and vegetables; and they engaged in more physical activity.

Take a look at the behaviors and see if any of them make sense to incorporate in your life. Adopting a few healthy strategies can make a big difference.

Understanding HDLs can be complex

I have always been proud of my high HDL level, but I heard recently that it might not be very important in terms of heart disease after all. What happened?

Well, not so fast.

You probably heard about a study that the medical journal The Lancetpublished online in May 2012. It received a lot of publicity because its findings were rather startling: After years of advising people to do what they can to raise their levels of HDLs — high-density lipoproteins, or what we’ve called the “good” cholesterol — researchers found that the 15 HDL-raising genetic variants they tested are not, in fact, linked to a reduced risk of heart attack.

However (and this is important): The scientists also emphasized that low HDL levels remain a good predictor, or what they call a “biomarker,” that a person has a higher risk of heart disease. This study revealed that low HDL levels themselves aren’t actually the bad guys — it appears that they’re just somehow associated with some as-yet-undetermined factor that increases the risk of heart disease.

So, for people who have a low HDL level, increasing it — by changing the diet or taking supplements, for example — won’t lower the risk of heart disease in and of itself. Raising a low HDL level simply won’t change the underlying factors that signal an increased risk.

At the same time, eating a healthy, balanced diet has many benefits. If it increases your HDLs at the same time, there’s certainly no harm in that.

It’s also important to realize that this finding does not affect recommendations regarding LDLs, or low-density lipoproteins. And, while genetic factors play a strong role in determining LDL levels, there’s a lot you can do to keep them as low as possible, including avoiding trans fats; keeping saturated fats low (less than 7 percent of your total calories); limiting total fat to 25 to 35 percent of total calories; keeping cholesterol intake to less than 200 milligrams a day; consuming 2 grams of plant stanols or sterols a day; increasing soluble fiber to 10 to 25 grams a day; and maintaining a healthy weight.

In addition, get at least 30 minutes of moderately intense exercise most days of the week, if not every day. And, when necessary, take prescribed medication, such as statins, to lower LDLs.

For more information, the National Institutes of Health offers a free, comprehensive, easy-to-read guide to “Lowering Your Cholesterol with TLC: Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes.” To download a copy, go to

Be safe: Keep cream pies cool

I made a chocolate cream pie for guests this weekend. We left it out on the counter for most of the afternoon, and one of my guests told me that I should have kept it refrigerated, and since I didn’t, we should throw it away. Was she right?

If you allowed the pie stay at room temperature (above 40 degrees Fahrenheit) for more than two hours, then, yes, she was right.

Standard food safety guidance warns against allowing perishable foods such as cream pies to stay in the “danger zone” — between 40 degrees and 140 degrees F — for more than two hours. After that amount of time, if there are any microorganisms that could cause foodborne illness lurking in the food, they are able to multiply so rapidly that they would be more likely to cause problems.

Experts say that after cooking cream pies, you should let them cool at room temperature for just 30 minutes, then put them in the refrigerator to complete cooling. They should be kept refrigerated except when you serve them.

Fruit pies — your standard apple, cherry or peach pie, for example — can safely be left at room temperature. But cream and custard pies are a different story. They normally contain ingredients such as eggs, milk, cream or cream cheese that need to be treated with extra care. And their moisture content is much higher, too, which makes them even more prone to the growth of bacteria and other microbes.

According to the Food and Drug Administration’s “Bad Bug Book” (a handbook on foodborne microorganisms), one of the organisms that cream pies are susceptible to is Staphylococcus aureus, or Staph. Staph is very common in the environment, and it can make toxins that might not be destroyed by cooking.

Obviously, illness doesn’t always occur when food isn’t handled properly. But if it does occur with Staph, it comes fast, within one to seven hours after eating. Symptoms include nausea, stomach cramps, vomiting and diarrhea, with severe cases causing dehydration, headache, muscle cramps, and even temporary changes in blood pressure and heart rate. The illness normally is over within a day — sometimes just a few hours.

Besides cooking and storing food properly, you can help keep food safe by washing your hands thoroughly (and often) as you prepare and serve food, and by keeping utensils and surfaces clean. For more details, download a fact sheet from Ohio State University Extension at

Now is prime time to examine grocery bill

Every week, I’m shocked at how high my grocery bill is. And I’ve heard we can expect even higher prices next year because of the drought. Please share any tips you can on saving money on groceries.

Actually, agricultural economists don’t expect the cost of food to rise dramatically because of the drought, although you will see some higher-than-normal increases in meat and poultry, eggs, and milk. That’s because the animals that produce those products eat so much corn, and corn prices are increasing because of the drought. The U.S. Department of Agriculture expects the drought to raise the cost of beef and dairy products, for example, just 1 percent higher than the 2.5 to 3.5 percent hike normally seen due to inflation.

On the other hand, much of the produce grown in the country is irrigated and likely won’t be affected too much by the drought.

The nutrition world is capitalizing on concern over higher meat prices and expected stable prices for produce: It’s suggesting that maybe now is the time to more closely follow MyPlate, which helps consumers meet the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, and boost intake of fruit and vegetables and reduce consumption of meat.

Try it: Plan one or more meatless meals a week, or adopt a more Mediterranean-style diet by cooking small amounts of meat with a wide variety of vegetables. It can help save you money and help balance your diet.

Some other ideas to get more from your dollar include:

  • If you don’t already, plan your meals and make a grocery list. Check for advertised specials and plan meals around what’s on sale.
  • Look for produce that’s in-season. It’s usually so abundant that grocery stores offer great deals on it.
  • Beans (garbanzo, black, kidney and pinto, for example) are good sources of lean protein and fiber, and are low-cost all year round. Plan a meal or two with beans as the main dish.
  • Look for smaller apples, bananas and other individual fruits. You’ll get more servings per pound.
  • Buy dry milk and use it in cooking instead of the more expensive regular milk. It will last several months in a tightly sealed container, or you can keep it in the freezer in a resealable zipper storage bag to last even longer.
  • Check the groceries at discount and dollar stores to see if you can save money on items you regularly use.
  • Determine how much you pay for convenience. You could save a bundle by buying heads of lettuce instead of pre-bagged salads, and regular rice, pudding and oatmeal instead of instant.