By Mrs Michelle Kennedy (Drum)December 19, 2011
(Editor's note: This is the second article in a two-part series on maintaining a healthy Army Family lifestyle. Check out The Mountaineer online for the first article about adult health and nutrition.)
FORT DRUM, N.Y. -- Every weekday, Soldiers, Family Members and civilians drop their children off at child care facilities across post. While parents are busy starting their work day, one group of Child, Youth and School Services employees is ensuring Fort Drum's youngest members receive balanced, nutritious meals and snacks.
Childhood obesity is an increasing problem in the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 17 percent of children and teens 2-19 years old are obese, which is three times higher than the rate in 1980. Obese children also are more likely to be obese adults.
Etosha Farmer, CYSS nutritionist, follows the U.S. Department of Agriculture's guidelines when planning menus for the eight child care centers on post. USDA guide-lines describe which food components must be served at each meal, as well as portion sizes for different age groups.
Farmer creates meal plans and includes USDA recipes to all of the child care facilities' cooking staff.
"One major issue, especially (relating to) childhood obesity, is portion control," Farmer said. "We have such portion distortion in this country. Adults see what they normally eat and think their children should be given the same amount. They end up feeding them way more than they need to."
Farmer said an example of "portion distortion" is kids' meals at fast-food restaurants.
"Kids' meals now were the original adult-sized meal (years ago)," she said. "Kids are getting used to eating what adults could eat for a meal, and they're eating way more than what's necessary for their bodies."
"People automatically think a smaller meal won't fill them up, but most likely, they'd be satisfied after eating it," she continued.
Children are served more food than they need because generally, adults also consume too much food, said Erin Dardeno, a CYSS cook who has been working in Fort Drum child development centers since 2005.
An easy way for people to figure out a portion size for protein or meat is using the palm of their hand as a guide, Farmer said. Meat or protein should be no bigger or thicker than their palm. That measurement also goes for children.
"If you look at (a child's) palm, that would be a good size of protein for them (versus) a big guy (with a large palm)," she explained. "The main (nutritional requirements for children) are the same, just smaller amounts. Calories and fat -- they need it all -- just less."
Child care providers are trained to know what serving size children in their room should receive. Each classroom has serving spoons and tableware that are sized proportionately for the age group, according to Dardeno.
Higher fat and calorie contents also are often found in prepackaged convenience foods, Farmer said.
"Our society, in general, moves at such a fast pace that parents don't have time to cook meals (from scratch) anymore," she said. "(However), parents are the gate keepers. They control what food is in the house."
Kimberly Contino, CYSS registered nurse, said that another culprit that could lead to childhood obesity is juice and soft drinks.
"Our programs only serve juice a couple of times a week," she said. "The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends six ounces or less of juice per day for children. Water is always available for our children."
Farmer added that milk, whether dairy or lactose-free, is always served with breakfast, lunch and dinner at the centers.
To further promote healthy lifestyles, CYSS programs do not allow children to watch television during their time in the centers, and on most days, they spend time outside, Contino explained.
"Lack of physical activity and too much time spent in front of a screen also contribute to childhood obesity," she said.
"Physical activity is definitely important too," she said. "Children are a lot more sedentary these days -- watching TV, playing on computers and video games. Kids sit in front of the TV way too much."
While CYSS facilities promote healthy eating during the work week, parents play a huge role in establishing their children's eating habits at home, Farmer said.
Many children tend to be picky eaters, but parents should expose their children to many different fruits and vegetables when planning meals at home, she added.
"Offer a wide variety of fruits and vegetables at every meal," Farmer said. "That way, if they don't like one, they might try the other."
"Children don't eat nearly as much fruits and vegetables as they should," she continued. "Trying to encourage and promote eating fruits and vegetables will definitely help (children) in the long run, especially if you start at an early age."
For children who still refuse to eat fruits and vegetables, parents can hide them in everyday meals. Shredded zucchini or carrots can be added to muffins, breads, sauces and soups, Dardeno said, adding that chopped spinach can easily be added to sauces and soups as well.
However, parents shouldn't always try to hide healthy ingredients in food, Farmer said.
"You want them to know they're eating healthy foods," she explained. "(Disguising food is) a good way to get extra fruits and vegetables in (their meal) if you know they're not going to eat it, but you shouldn't always have to hide it."
If children are always used to eating foods with hidden healthy ingredients, they might not eat them if they're served by themselves, Farmer added.
Another tip to help parents with picky eaters is to include them in food preparation and make the meals look pretty, Dardeno said.
"If you make food look good, kids will want to eat it," she said. "Keep offering the same things. If your child tries something once and they don't like it, you think they're never going to eat it. But if you keep trying, eventually, it might taste good to them."
Farmer agreed, saying it's all about perception.
"It's all about how food is perceived. What it looks like on the plate is a big part," she said, adding that one of the most important ways parents can reinforce healthy eating habits is interacting with their children during meal times.
"Make sure you're a good role model for children," Farmer continued. "If you're telling your child, 'eat these carrots,' and you go and you go eat a bag of chips, your child isn't going to eat the carrots. Set a good example."
Children want to be like their parents, and Farmer highly encourages families to eat together.
"It's important that parents eat with their kids," Farmer continued. "Kids see their parents eating the food, and if they know Mom is eating it, (maybe) they'll like it too."
Even talking about the benefits of various foods can influence children's food choices, Farmer explained.
"You can say 'drink this milk, it'll make your bones strong' or 'eat these carrots, because they'll help you see better,'" she said.
For more information about healthy eating habits or nutrition guidelines, visit the USDA's website at www.usda.gov or www.choosemyplate.gov.