The holidays are here and your kids are going gaga for candy, cookies and sweets. After all, who can blame them? Before they reach a regrettable sugar rush, read on to hear from Pediatric Dietitian Crystal Tsai. As an Outpatient Pediatric Dietitian at Stanford Children’s Health, Crystal has some pragmatic advice about eating healthy around the holidays. She recently dished to us about holiday health and wellness, healthy snack ideas, what to look out for on food labels and even some surprising foods your picky eater may actually love. Check out the full interview below for words of wisdom every parent should hear.
Red Tricycle: Do you have any go-to rules for eating healthy around the holidays?
Crystal Tsai, MS, RD: I always encourage families to have balance and moderation all the time, including the holidays. It’s okay to indulge in the treats and food traditions that are coming up around the holidays, and at the same time we should continue to include healthy choices to nourish our bodies. Treat the entire day like a normal day—eat a healthy breakfast and lunch and try not to graze while preparing for the big meal. I recommend against fasting the entire day in preparation for the big holiday meal as this can often lead to unhealthier choices due to extreme hunger, such as eating more simple carbohydrates or starches and over-eating. During the holiday meal, plate the vegetables first, then add the other foods. Enjoy your meal and avoid feeling guilty about it. Enjoy other aspects of the holidays that are unrelated to food! The holidays are not all about food, so remember why everyone is gathered together for this.
RT: How can parents create a holiday dinner that feels special but is also healthy?
CT: Include vegetables in as many colors as possible. There are many dishes that could easily include more vegetables if you just get creative with which ones would pair well with the dish. Otherwise, having vegetables on the side works well too, and always put them on your plate.
RT: How many cookies and candies are reasonable for a kid to eat at a holiday event? What about a parent?
CT: This is probably the most difficult question to answer. I can’t put a number on it since it depends on the situation and the treats, but I think the big things to remember are that cookies and candies are treats and should be treated as such. If you’re eating healthfully and filling yourself up with healthier foods first, you might not have much room for more than one or two treats. Depriving yourself or your kids of the treats will only make them seem more desirable and unobtainable, which opens the door to over-eating them at some point. Eating too much can foster feelings of guilt and general physical discomfort. Both ends of the spectrum are unhealthy. I encourage parents and kids to decide together how much of the cookies/candies they want to eat that everyone can feel good about and enjoy, and no one feels either guilty or deprived.
RT: Do you have any tips for adding vegetables into holiday dishes?
CT: A lot of casseroles or side dishes can use vegetables. Add more vegetables than what the recipe calls for. Make a vegetable soup as a side. Make colorful salads. Throw vegetables into pastas.
RT: My toddler likes all the typical kid food—mac ‘n’ cheese, pizza, goldfish. How do I integrate more vegetables into his diet while still ensuring he’s eating enough every day?
CT: Every child is different when it comes to vegetables. Some hate the foods touching and mixing and others prefer it that way. I encourage parents to offer what you are eating (and what you are eating should include vegetables; you are not exempt to your own vegetable-eating wishes for your child!). And, allow your child to decide for themselves if they want to eat it or not. It might take a while before they decide to try it, but if you are modeling eating yummy and healthy vegetables, and you don’t force your child to eat them, many kids eventually decide that they want to try it too.
Aside from that, pasta is probably one of the easiest ways to integrate vegetables. The sauce masks the flavors and most people don’t mind a chunkier sauce filled with vegetables. Another favorite is finger food type of vegetables for toddlers, where they can pick up an entire (softened) carrot stick or zucchini stick or cucumber stick and have fun with them.
RT: Evenings are always a mad rush to get dinner on the table, and it’s even worse during the holidays. Do you have any go-to dishes or advice for busy parents that will help them get a healthy meal on the dinner before bedtime?
CT: A slow cooker! And chopping vegetables/other things ahead of time (or buying them pre-chopped) to save yourself time when you’re really in a bind to throw things together.
RT: What are your recommendations for on-the-go snacks during holiday travel (both homemade and the store-bought variety)?
CT: Healthy snacks should include something high in fiber (such as a fruit, vegetable, or whole grains) with a protein (cheese stick, nuts). The snacks easiest to travel with are probably dried fruit (no sugar added, limit to a handful) and nuts (also limit to a handful). If you can, keep fresh fruits with you or pack mini sandwiches with whole grain bread or pitas stuffed with some veggies and cheese or hummus. Otherwise, I recommend buying things that are higher in fiber (aim for 3 g or more per serving), low in sugar (as low as you can get, ideally 5 g or less per serving) and low in saturated fat (1 g or less per serving). Another good general rule of thumb when reading labels is whether you know what the ingredients are and where they came from. Ingredients with long complicated names are usually more highly processed.
RT: Besides my pediatrician, whom can I talk to or what resources are out there if I have questions about my family’s diet and nutrition?
CT: Registered dietitians (RDs) are credentialed professionals who stay updated on the most evidence-based practices. I highly encourage you to ask for a referral to see a dietitian if you have specific questions. If you are reading things online, the more credible sources are hospitals or articles written by RDs.
RT: My son loves chickpeas. Are there any surprising foods that parents tell you that their kids love that maybe they’ve never considered trying?
CT: My six-year-old niece loves plain, soft tofu with nothing added to it which has always surprised me. I have also heard of kids loving edamame.
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