My dear friend, Amy, who has been diagnosed with cervical cancer recently, called me on her way to the grocery store and asked if I could recommend a healthy, organic waffle mix. Her daughters, 11 and 15, were begging for a special breakfast for the first day of school, but would only eat “white, sugary stuff.” Amy wanted to “trick” them into trying some healthier foods. “I figure my diagnosis is a good excuse to get the whole family eating better,” Amy said.
I tipped Amy off to a brand I liked, and called her several days later to see how the breakfast turned out. “They tricked me!” Amy reported. “I made the waffle mix and cut up some fresh fruit for a topping, but when I stepped out of the kitchen for a minute the kids dumped chocolate chips into the batter, cooked the waffles, smothered them in syrup, and completely ignored the fruit!”
Sound familiar? After a cancer diagnosis, many parents want to eat healthier, and it makes sense to involve the whole family. But not every toddler, 10-year-old, or teen can be counted on to embrace whole wheat bread, kale chips, or organic waffle mix. So what’s the solution?
According to Wahida Karmally, PHD, RD, and Director of Nutrition at the Irving Institute for Clinical and Translational Research at Columbia University Medical Center in New York, my friend Amy shouldn’t stress out over the fact that her girls sprinkled chocolate chips into the waffle mix. “Most likely the mix was whole grain, and next time she could add some Greek yogurt or low fat milk,” Dr. Karmally says. “Taking something familiar and adding one or two ingredients to enhance the nutrients is a good place to start with kids.” Call it “stealth health.”
The main idea, says Dr. Karmally, is to make sure the whole family is well nourished. That may take some doing, especially if you’ve been lax in the past. As my friend Amy says, “Our household has always had lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, but once I was diagnosed I really wanted to up the ante for myself and I thought this was a perfect opportunity to do the same thing for my kids. In the past, I’ve slacked off and looked the other way, letting them eat sugary desserts, since kids want to eat what their friends are eating—sweets, prepared foods that come in packages, and the stuff they sell in the school cafeteria.”
We have some ideas from Dr. Karmally for encouraging your children to participate in your healthier eating plan:
- Shop together—but not right before dinner when you’re more likely to be hungry and may be tempted by less-nutritious, quick, convenience foods. Make a list before you go shopping, and plan the meals with your child (or children). Make it fun by asking your child to pick one new vegetable to try at every meal.
- Cook together. Get kids involved in the preparation of meals as soon as they’re old enough to stir a batter or toss some chopped tomatoes into a sauce pan. If you’re going through treatment you may be too tired to cook on certain days, so weekends may be a good time to plan meals and shop together.
- Eat together whenever possible. “Sitting down and role modeling healthy eating is one of the most effective ways to help kids learn,” the doctor says.
- Introduce new foods gradually. A major diet revolution may not work with kids, even if you feel like starting with a clean slate. For youngsters, begin with a few not-very-daring items — string beans or tomatoes, for instance — and work from there.
- Try some “undercover” changes. If your kids like lasagna, add some spinach or grated carrots. Use the same tactic by adding some veggies to mac and cheese. “Kids will enjoy what they already like without fussing,” Dr. Karmally predicts. Wash fruits and keep them on the counter at child’s level or in the fridge on a shelf your child can easily reach.
- Shop together at the local farmers’ market and include your kids in the conversation. Ask the farmer whether sprays are used, and if so, what kind, then explain to the kids why that matters.
- Consider consulting about healthful family food choices with a registered dietitian who specializes in oncology. Check out nutrition and cooking websites (such as this one) with your child. Discuss such issues as going organic and the use of supplements with your oncologist. If you’re upping your child’s fruit and veggie consumption (as well as your own) shoot for pesticide-free choices.
Amy adds another tip, “We took sugary desserts out of the equation and now we put out fresh fruit after dinner. But you really have to present the fruit and make it look pretty. I slice up the peaches and arrange them on the plate—sometimes I go out to the garden and pick a sprig of mint for a garnish so that it looks like a fancy dessert. I’ll eat a whole peach or apple, but my girls won’t.” With kids, it seems, presentation is everything.
She also has begun serving the vegetable and salad course first. “I make a big dish of steamed broccoli and a salad and put that out while I’m getting everything else ready.”
As for the waffles, Amy made the berries into syrup, which she froze for the next time, reasoning (rightly) that if her kids didn’t come on board the first time around, she’d simply try, try again.
Remember, too, that transforming the family diet is a journey: Don’t beat yourself up if a few chocolate chips come along for the ride.
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