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Heart disease becoming concern for kids, too

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Alternatives to fast food

Children who are choosing foods that are high in calories, fat and sugar are experiencing elevated cholesterol and triglyceride levels that can increase their risk of heart disease. Here's what you can do to prevent future health problems for your kids -- and yourself, too!
Kids eating apples

Fast food is too easy

In addition to high cholesterol, an increasing number of children also are being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, says Sandy Procter, Kansas State University Research and Extension nutrition educator. Fast food, which often is high in calories and fat, and super-sized carbonated beverages that are high in sugar, are assumed to be major factors in these and other health concerns.

"Fast" food at home?Learning to combine some convenience foods with staples and home-prepared foods can shorten dinner prep and help build confidence in the kitchen, said Procter, who offered this example:Consider purchasing a ready-to-eat rotisserie chicken; frozen vegetable mix; potatoes that can be scrubbed, cut into sections and steamed while vegetables are cooking. Add fresh fruit or frozen yogurt and a cookie for dessert to make a meal in less time than it would take to drive to a restaurant.Have leftover chicken? Remove it from the carcass and place it in a shallow, covered pan and refrigerate it for a second meal in a day or two, or wrap and freeze it for a future meal. Reheating is easy -- leftovers also can be served as chicken salad or in chicken pot pie, by combining cut-up leftover chicken with mixed vegetables, and gravy. Biscuit topping can be added before baking.Chicken soup is another possibility, by combining chicken broth with leftover chicken and adding canned or frozen mixed vegetables and pasta or rice. Simmer the ingredients together.See more! Five quick and healthy dinners with rotisserie chicken

The ready availability of fast food makes it an easy choice. These restaurants usually offer some food choices that are lower in calories and fat, but rarely market them as aggressively, says Procter, who offered tips for reducing calories, fat, sodium and sugar:

  • Choose different restaurants. Menus vary, and that makes it easier to eat a variety of foods.
  • Opt for lower-fat choices -- for example, choose a grilled rather than fried sandwich or entrée, or steamed veggies instead of those sautéed in oil.
  • Choose what to eat, rather than opting for a "combo" or pre-packaged meal. "Combos are not always the bargain they seem. Saving a few cents cannot offset increased health risks from the extra calories, fat and sodium," Procter says.
  • Order standard-size portions of food and beverages. Order a "biggie" serving of French fries only if you plan to share it!
  • Skip highly salted foods.

Drink up

Some families make it a rule to drink milk at home, but allow choosing other beverages -- fruit juice, carbonated beverages, or other drinks like lemonade -- when eating out. "The importance of calcium-rich milk for children (and adults) should not be overlooked. Milk usually is available in restaurants, but may cost a few cents more than beverages that offer fewer health benefits," Procter says. Should children drink reduced-fat milk? "[Normal-weight] children age two and under need the nutritional benefits of whole milk. Older children can, however, benefit from drinking lower-fat milk," she says. (Note: Monitoring children's cholesterol and triglyceride levels as well as blood sugar levels is something that should be discussed with your health care professional.)

Simpler isn't always better

"Eating out can seem like the simplest choice -- parents report that they run short on time and lack confidence in the kitchen." But, she says, "Learning to become more confident in the kitchen isn't difficult. It takes some practice, but usually gets easier each time."Making a healthful meal at home doesn't have to be time consuming or expensive, says Procter, who offers these tips:

  • Stock up on staples, like pasta and rice; canned or frozen fruits and vegetables, soups and sauces or sauce mixes that can simplify preparing a meal.
  • Buy larger quantities, like a bigger pack of ground beef or turkey that can be cooked, divided to meet family needs and frozen for future meals. Doing so saves time and money. Use the cooked meat to make preparing spaghetti sauce, a taco salad or Sloppy Joes easier. It also can provide a psychological boost, because it takes the pressure off: part of the meal already is prepared!
  • Plan to shop when the grocery store is least crowded. (Get more savvy supermarket shopping tips here.)
  • Take the time to read food labels. Check the ingredient list and calories, fat, cholesterol and sodium. Product labels sometimes include easy recipes and suggested serving sizes, which can be helpful in deciding how much to buy.
  • Be selective. Convenience or other processed foods usually are higher in price. Learning to weigh value, price and time can help grocery shoppers make spending decisions. For more budget-friendly ideas, click here to see how to save money by finding and using coupons, both online and off.
  • Limit snacks that are high in calories, fat and sodium. "The family grocery shopper has the power to choose," she says.

Investing a little time in learning basic cooking skills and grocery shopping strategies can save time, money and make eating at home faster, easier and healthier.Another bonus: Cooking and eating together at home can strengthen family relationships. Children often share more about their lives while helping a parent prepare dinner than they will when simply asked "How was your day?" Procter says.

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