Mommy Makeovers: Lighten Kids' Favorite Foods

Try these healthier versions of family favorites

By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

Reviewed By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD

The good news is that the healthy-eating movement in America is gaining momentum. Shucks, even cereal giants have launched reduced-sugar versions of their tried-and-true cereals like Frosted Flakes and Cocoa Puffs. I never thought I would see the day when Tony the Tiger would say that a less-sugar frosted flake was still Gr-r-reat!

Even so, we're still bombarded with information from every direction reminding us that large numbers of our children are "overweight" or "obese." This always scares me, because I fear that some well-intentioned parents will react by doing harmful things like putting their children on fad diets.

I'm not alone, either. Connie Liakos Evers, RD, author of How to Teach Nutrition to Kids, worries that there will be a backlash of eating disorders because the media is constantly telling kids they are fat.

So don't worry -- I'm not going to try the "shock and awe" approach and cite countless statistics on child obesity in America. I'm guessing you've already heard plenty of them before, and, frankly, they're not going to help matters anyway.

What we can do as families is to:

  • Make sitting down to dinner a happy, relaxed, and special time as many times a week as possible.
  • Have the whole family focus on healthy eating behaviors (like eating more fruits and vegetables, switching to whole grains, exercising more, and eating fewer high-fat foods) because it's a great thing to do for preventing diseases tomorrow and for feeling great today.
  • Get into exercise as many ways as possible. When the whole family gets moving, no one feels singled out, and it sends the message that exercising is good for everyone (which it is).

Do as I Say, Not as I Did

Our children can actually learn from our mistakes. If fad dieting didn't work for us, why should we think it will work for them? If being criticized or having our food intake scrutinized by friends and family was hurtful and counterproductive for us, wouldn't it work the same way (or maybe be even worse) for children?

A recent study took a close look at the dieting experiences of 149 women who had BMIs of 30 to 70 (the standard classification for obesity is a BMI, or body mass index, of 30 or higher). The researchers found that women with higher BMIs tended to have started dieting before age 14, and had dieted more frequently than women with lower BMIs.

Here are some other interesting tidbits from this study:

  • 62% of the women in the survey were put on their first diet before age 14.
  • 40% were put on a diet by their parents.
  • 83% of the women with BMIs of 55 or higher had dieted more than 11 times.

Other studies have found consistently that youths' attempts at weight control tend to do exactly the opposite of what they are supposed to do. In fact, the higher the level of dietary restraint, concern about weight, and body dissatisfaction among young girls at risk of being overweight, the more weight they gained between ages 5 to 9, according to a recent study.

Focusing your family on eating and exercising for the health of it is a healthier way to go, both mentally and physically.

Transforming Kids Favorite Foods

What do macaroni and cheese, hot dogs, and pizza have in common? They're "kid foods," of course. I don't know how it happens, but somewhere between making them their first peanut-butter-and jelly sandwich and taking them to their first play date where they're introduced to macaroni and cheese (from the box), we find ourselves fixing "kid foods" for the family meals at least some of the time.

To get your family started on the road to healthy eating, I did a few "mommy makeovers" to lighten dishes that moms go out of their way to make because our kids love them. By making a few ingredient adjustments, you can transform them into healthier options for kids and grownups alike.

I had my suspicions about what these foods were, but I wanted some professional advice. So I asked a few editors of food or parenting publications what they thought. Then I did a "mommy makeover" on one dish/recipe from each editor's list. (I noted these with an *; see the recipes below.)

Andrea Messina, lifestyle director for Parenting magazine, is convinced that kids like things buttery, cheesy, or fried. She puts pizza*, macaroni and cheese, chicken nuggets, and French fries at the top of the popularity chart.

According to Syd Carter, an editor with, parents who visit the recipe web site have noted that their kids loved:

  • Fajitas
  • Kabobs
  • Smoothies
  • Pot roast
  • Banana bread*
  • All things Mexican

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