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boy holding lunch bag We all know that poor eating habits can lead to weight and heart problems, and the incidence of high cholesterol in children is growing. But how can we get our kids to eat food that’s good for their health and their hearts?

“The goal is to make healthy eating fun and easy for everyone,” says Elizabeth Wright, a clinical dietitian in the Cardiac Center and the Division of Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). “You want to have food on hand that’s good for your kids, and prepare meals that are both tasty and appealing to look at. Over time, your kids will grow to prefer the healthy options.”

What are heart-healthy foods?

To understand what makes a heart-healthy diet, Wright offers three simple guidelines: “Cut down on saturated fat and sugar, and push more fiber.”
Saturated fat contributes to high cholesterol levels, high blood pressure and heart disease.

  • Buy 1 percent or skim milk instead of whole milk, and low-fat yogurt and cheese.
  • Cook with lean meats: chicken with the skin removed, turkey, or 90 percent lean ground beef.
  • Serve fish twice a week.

boy with waterbottle Sugar affects the body’s metabolism, contributing to fat storage and weight gain, which in turn affects heart health.

  • Serve water instead of juice. Juice has almost as much sugar as soda. When you do serve juice, mix it with water and limit portions to 4 or 5 ounces (about a half a cup).
  • Don’t keep sugary cereals or sugary snacks in your home. If they are there, your kids (and you) will eat them.  

Fiber, which is found in whole grains, fruits, vegetables and beans, naturally helps remove unhealthy cholesterol from the body.

  • Serve more fruits and vegetables and keep them on hand for snacks. You and your children should have five servings of fruits and vegetables every day.
  • Choose whole grains — whole grain pasta and bread, brown rice instead of white.
  • Buy only cereal with at least 3 grams of fiber per serving (and little or no added sugar).
  • Include beans with meals.  

Making heart-healthy eating fun and easy

“Once you understand the basic guidelines of heart-healthy nutrition,” Wright says, “the key is shop for those foods ahead of time so they are on hand for snacks and meals, and to keep unhealthy foods out of your home. Then you want to prepare and present those healthy foods in fun and tasty ways. And you want to engage your kids in shopping and preparing meal so they come to prefer healthier options.”

  • Serve vegetables in different forms. Riced cauliflower and broccoli are available in the frozen food aisle, and are an appealing alternative for kids. “Zoodles,” spaghetti-like strip of zucchini, are available in the produce section or can be sliced at home with an inexpensive device.
  • Use food as an art project, especially with younger children. Plan a meal with a rainbow of colors. Make faces by combining slices of fruits and vegetables. (Banana slices and raisins make good eyes. Apple and pear slices make smiley mouths.)
  • Take your kids with you to a farmer’s market and have them pick a new fruit or vegetable to try.
  • Present healthy food as a treat. Never use desert as a reward.

Finding heart-healthy recipes your kids will love

CHOP’s Nutrition in the Kitchen guide has a number of healthy and delicious recipes, and the Clinical Nutrition Department offers many helpful resources. Here are some ideas for heart-healthy snacks from CHOP’s nutrition experts:

  • Prepare grab-and-go snack bags. Mix packaged cereal (not sugary brands) with dried fruit and nuts, and portion into sandwich bags.
  • Make smoothies. Blend low-fat milk with frozen fruit and a banana. Add low-fat yogurt for extra thickness.
  • Put some grapes in the freezer — they taste just like popsicles.
  • Spread peanut butter on apple or pear slices. Add two raisin eyes to make a smiling face.
  • Dip raw vegetables, like baby carrots, in hummus or salsa.
  • Use cookie cutters to make healthy sandwiches in fun shapes. (To make heart-healthy sandwiches, use whole-grain bread, lean lunchmeat and vegetables. Avoid regular mayonnaise, salami, bologna, liverwurst and pepperoni, which are all high in saturated fat.)

Contributed by: Elizabeth L. Wright, MS, RD, CSP, LDN, FAND

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