You love your grandkids. They're the cutest and smartest on the block. Chances are you take every opportunity to spend time with them. That probably means choosing meals and snacks together.
What’s the smartest choice?
"Growing kids typically have voracious appetites. They need lots of calories for fuel to grow and play," says Kathleen Zelman, RD, director of nutrition for WebMD. "Grandparents don’t need as much as they get older. But beyond those differences, the guidelines for healthy food choices are the same."
Your kids' visits to grandma or grandpa can be a good opportunity for boosting the nutrition of both. Preparing many small portions of finger foods can help, especially if your parent has lost interest in cooking or eating, says Joanne Koenig Coste, a former caregiver and expert in family caregiving. She suggests dividing soybeans, baked vegetable chips, pine nuts, or pumpkin seeds into snack-size baggies to leave for healthy snacks. "Cut granola bars into four or six pieces for snacks," Coste says. "Make smoothies in advance that they can defrost and eat."
Grandparents who make smart food choices for their grandkids do more than keep them healthy, says Ruth Ann Carpenter, RD, author of Healthy Eating Every Day. "You’ll also serve as a role model, shaping their choices for the rest of their lives."
For inspiration, turn to these top 10 foods that are perfect for people at almost any age.
That’s right, eggs. Once vilified because they contain dietary cholesterol, eggs are back on the healthy menu. "As long as you limit yourself to about one egg a day, you don’t need to worry," says Zelman.
That one egg each morning is about half the daily cholesterol limit for people with normal LDL (bad) cholesterol levels. Just remember to limit your cholesterol the rest of the day. Eggs are packed with nutrients, protein, and unsaturated fats (as well as some saturated fat). They fill you up on relatively few calories. And they're versatile. Zelman’s suggestions: egg and vegetable scrambles for breakfast, hard-boiled eggs for a snack, and egg-salad sandwiches on whole-grain bread.
2. Milk and Other Dairy Products
The official federal dietary guidelines recommend three cups of low-fat dairy products a day for adults. Children 2 to 8 years should have 2 cups a day if they don't have a dairy allergy or lactose intolerance. The calcium in dairy products helps build strong bones in children and preserves bone strength in older people. Milk is an easy choice. For snacks, low-fat string cheese is nutritious and fun for younger kids. When the grandkids are clamoring for a sweet treat, whip up a low-sugar-yogurt smoothie with fresh fruit.
Coste says that both younger and older people tend to have a sweet tooth, and family members can take advantage of this by making healthy, tasty desserts for them. For example, make a pudding by substituting low-sugar yogurt for part of the water in strawberry Jell-O. Bring it over to Mom or Dad's with some ice cream cones. "Then the grandparent and grandchildren can eat the pudding out of ice cream cones," she says. "It's great fun and isn't that 'icy cold' if you have dental or denture issues."
Another healthy twist: Make a sandwich cookie by spreading cream cheese between two gingersnap cookies. "Nothing is going to make an older person lose the desire to eat like not getting to eat a treat once in a while," Coste says.
3. Whole-Grain Breakfast Cereal
Skip the sugary flakes and choose a breakfast cereal made with whole grains -- and only small amounts of added sugar. The first ingredient should be a whole grain. On a cold winter day, steel-cut hot oatmeal is a great choice. By adding a few raisins or fresh fruit, you can make cereal sweeter without piling on sugar. "Pour low-fat milk on top and you’ve got a well-balanced meal," says Zelman.
Nuts, like eggs, have been welcomed back into a healthy kitchen. Sure, they are high in fat. "But the oil in nuts is mostly unsaturated, so it won’t raise heart disease risk," says Penny Kris-Etherton, PhD, professor of nutrition at Pennsylvania State University. Studies show that people who snack on nuts have healthier hearts and are less likely to be overweight. If your grandkids aren't keen on nuts, make up your own trail mix by adding raisins, dark chocolate chips, or pieces of dried coconut to a package of mixed nuts. Another great choice: peanut butter. "Kids love it, and you can smear it on toast for breakfast or a sandwich at lunch. Peanut butter on celery sticks also makes a great snack," says Zelman.
Beans and lentils are nutritional powerhouses. They’re rich sources of fiber, protein, and many essential nutrients. Beans are also very satisfying, so you'll feel full before you pile on too many calories. And they’re versatile. Baked beans are a great way to whet kids' appetites for beans. Lots of kids also love chili and classic summer salads made with a mix of beans.
6. Tuna and Other Fish
Fish is a leading source of omega-3 fats, which are important at all ages. And it's heart-healthy food. Research shows that omega-3 fats lower the risk of abnormal heart rhythms and levels of blood fats (triglycerides). Some research suggests a link to reduced risk of dementia, as well as help for joint problems and symptoms of ADHD.
7. Whole-Grain Bread
Who doesn't love bread? Bread features in everything from French toast in the morning to sandwiches at lunch and bread pudding for dessert at night. The smartest choice, of course, is whole-grain bread, which packs more fiber and nutrients than refined-flour breads. Breads made with seeds or nuts pack even more nutrition. Studies show that people who eat more whole grains lower their risk of diabetes, heart disease, and other conditions, Zelman adds.
For people with blurred vision, Coste says, "White bread is eaten much less than wheat or pumpernickel. It's a visual thing, not a taste thing." So if you're an adult child who occasionally grocery shops for your parents, pick up a loaf of whole-grain bread and see if they prefer it.
Young kids love the variety of shapes and the taste of pasta. Choose whole-wheat pasta for more fiber and nutrition. Many very good basic tomato sauces are available on grocery store shelves these days, making it easy to put together a simple and delicious dish. Tomatoes are rich in antioxidants. For variety and added nutritional value, add chicken, beans, or vegetables such as chopped peppers or peas.
9. Colorful Vegetables
Health experts say kids and grandparents alike should try to eat vegetables every day.
- Children ages 2 to 3 need 1 cup of vegetables a day.
- Kids 4 to 8 need 1.5 cups.
- Older kids and adults need 2 to 3 cups of vegetables a day, depending on gender and activity levels.
Very few Americans hit the mark. Vegetables can be a tough sell for young kids. To make them more palatable, choose brightly colored and sweet-flavored vegetables, such as carrots, bell peppers, peas, and corn. Find fun ways to serve them: Decorate the top of a home-made pizza, for instance, or serve them with a cheese or hummus dip.
Most Americans, young and old, also fall short of the recommended 1 to 2 cups of fruit a day. That’s too bad. Fruit is a great snack and a healthy alternative to sugary and fatty desserts. Fresh fruit is the top choice for nutrition. But frozen or canned fruit is a good alternative. Avoid products with added sugar or syrup.