Compromise: A parent’s greatest ally in getting kids to eat right

Published 7:00 pm Thursday, April 19, 2012

The old adage “life is about compromise” is never truer than for parents trying to get their children to eat nutritious meals. Sometimes you need the skills of an international diplomat to negotiate a balance between what your kids agree to eat and what you want them to eat.

So what do you do if your child will only drink chocolate milk and prefers her veggies with salt or cheese sauce? Make the most of it and compromise gracefully, nutrition experts say.

“Compromise is not failure, especially if it means children are getting valuable nutrition because of it,” says Neva Cochran, a registered dietitian and recognized nutrition expert.

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Parents may think they have to eliminate certain things entirely from their children’s diets, such as sugar or salt. But the reality for most families is that this is almost impossible to do, and if the lack of those flavor-enhancers means children will forego eating foods that are otherwise nutritionally valuable, it may be better to focus on moderation.

The flavored milk debate is a good example of this point. Critics of flavored milk condemn the sugar present in chocolate and strawberry milk, causing some schools to remove those items from their menu. But the effect of this, according to a study done by Prime Consulting Group, is that overall milk consumption dropped by more than a third (35 percent) in schools that removed flavored milk from cafeteria menus.

The nutritional value of milk can’t be debated: it’s packed with nutrients like calcium, vitamin D and potassium – regardless of whether it’s plain or flavored. Children who will only drink chocolate milk would potentially miss out on those nutritional benefits if parents ban flavored milk from their diets.

“There is so much media hype focused on food and nutrition that it is easy for parents to forget the basics, like moderation to ensure we are not consuming more of any ingredient than the recommended amount, and also a little bit of compromise to make sure kid’s daily nutrition needs are being met,” says Cochran

Cochran cites the high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) vs. sugar debate as an illustration of unnecessary hype, which has raised additional concerns for some parents. “When we focus on these myths, like one type of sugar being better than the other, we lose sight of the bigger picture of moderation and meeting our kids’ nutrition needs,” says Cochran. “And, extensive research and many health organizations – including the American Medical Association – have said that HFCS and sugar are the same.”

Dr. James M. Rippe, a Harvard-trained cardiologist, echoes that sentiment in a recent CNN report when he states, “Research laboratories have done studies, that show by every parameter measured, high fructose corn syrup and sucrose (table sugar) are metabolically and, from a health standpoint, identical,” he says.

It’s not just sugar causing headaches for parents; vegetables are another point of concern for many. They may feel kids should learn to eat vegetables without added salt or the extra calories that come from toppings like cheese sauce or ranch dressing, or from serving veggies in smoothie form with added sugars.

Yet the nutritional value of vegetables – especially leafy greens – can’t be argued, and parents may consider that it’s better to compromise, and allow modest amounts of flavor-boosting toppings, rather than forego the health benefits of vegetables.

It’s a widely reported, well-known fact that the majority of the salt Americans consume daily is from prepared foods – such as canned soups, frozen dinners and salty snacks. Parents may find it more nutritionally advantageous for children to reduce the amount of high-sodium prepared foods they eat and increase their consumption of fresh vegetables with a dash of table salt for flavor.

Instead of eliminating a certain nutrient from a child’s diet, experts say, parents should focus on ensuring children stay within daily dietary guidelines for ingredients like sugar and salt.

“Just as parents practice moderation in their own dietary habits, moderation – and its cousin, compromise – can help ensure kids get the nutrients they need to grow and thrive. At the end of the day, it’s not nutrition if it goes in the trash,” says Cochran. “Plus, by learning about moderation in childhood, kids have a better chance of continuing that healthy habit when they become adults.”