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Sugar on the Brain

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Tips, tricks and advice for shifting your kids to healthier snacks

Last year, my son’s class ate lunch at 11:30 a.m. By the time he got home from school at 4 p.m., he was famished.

My daughter wasn’t far behind, although her big complaint was feeling sluggish in the late afternoons. She said her classroom looked like a bunch of zombies by 2:30 p.m., something akin to the zoned-out students in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

I had my work cut out for me. Their 4 p.m. snack had to be both nutritious and delicious. Here are some of the things I considered when looking at my options.

Get colorful

color wheel by fruits and vegetables from an angle There are a couple reasons that using rich-hued fruits and vegetables (and even pistachios!)—like blueberries and carrots—makes for great snacks. They’re colorful, which generally makes kids attracted to them. (Do you think it’s a coincidence that the cereals on the lower shelves of the grocery stores are brightly colored? Guess who’s at eye level with sugary cereals!) But they’re also full of phytochemicals, which have been found to provide health benefits beyond what essential nutrients can give us.

In “Today’s Dietitian,” the colors are broken down into categories based on their pigment and health benefits. Here’s a quick summary:

  • Blues/Purples

Pigment from: anthocyanins
Examples: Plums, blueberries, pomegranates, blackberries, prunes, eggplant (especially the skin)

  • Greens

Pigment from: chlorophyll (These foods are rich in isothiocyanates)
Examples: broccoli, bok choy, cabbage, Brussels sprouts

  • Yellows/Greens

Pigment from: lutein
Examples: Kiwi, pistachios, avocado, spinach, other leafy greens

  • Reds

Pigment from: lycopene
Examples: tomatoes, guava, watermelon, cranberries, pink grapefruit

  • Yellows/Oranges

Pigment from: beta-cryptoxanthin, beta-carotene, vitamin C
Examples: Carrots, apricots, cantaloupe, mangos, winter squash, pumpkins, sweet potatoes

RECIPE: Rainbow Veggie Pinwheels


Get nutty

Nut allergies withstanding, every kid should be able to find some kind of nut (or seed) they love. Nuts are incredibly nutritious, packed with protein, “good” fats, vitamins and minerals. They also keep well (in school lunches or as snacks they don’t need to be refrigerated).

In addition to choosing between shelled and unshelled, you can purchase them in butter form or make your own at home. The same is true for sunflower seeds.

So, which nuts are the best?

According to “Health” magazine, all nuts are healthy when eaten in moderation and are about equal in calories. The trick is usually to buy them raw or dry roasted.

Pound for pound, your healthiest options are almonds, cashews, walnuts, peanuts and pistachios. The two to avoid: macadamia nuts and pecans.

RECIPE: Peanut Butter, Banana & Honey Roll-Ups


Get seasonal

Spooky green apple monsters for Halloween party

Sure, buying seasonal fruits and vegetables is usually cheaper and tastier, but “getting seasonal” also applies to having fun with holidays (e.g., Easter, Halloween, Christmas) and themes (e.g., boats, snowmen, flowers, pumpkins).

What about giving your kids a plate of fruits, vegetables, cheese, nuts and pretzels and telling them to design their own edible monster or bug? Or giving them each a spinach wrap, some sliced cheese and thinly sliced pears with some cookie cutters to make their own green Christmas tree sandwiches? Be sure to include some almond butter, honey or peanut butter to serve as the “glue” in their creations.

Seasonal could also mean experimenting with cool treats in the warmer months. Try letting your kids choose their own ingredients for smoothies or popsicles.

Got a rainy spring day? Put out bowls of pretzels, gold fish, yogurt-covered cranberries, raisins, nuts and popcorn and have the kids make their own snack mix for movie time!

RECIPE: Fall Special


Get them growing

Boy with vegetable harvest

Years ago we had a huge garden that could have made me a pretty penny at the Farmer’s Market—had my kids not eaten everything before I could pick it! From tomatoes and peas to carrots and peppers, my kids ate more vegetables that summer than any year before or since! Why? Because they had a hand in growing them.

Seeing your hard work come to fruition is incredibly satisfying at any age, but especially for kids. They had helped plant, label, water, fertilize and compost, and knowing those vegetables were “theirs” made them taste that much better.

We go back to school in mid-August, so the kids were still reaping the rewards of their work in their school lunch and after school snacks. They were so proud to show off their carrots and snap peas to their classmates!

Freezing, pickling and canning also works great to preserve the harvest. There’s the traditional tomato sauce, jelly and pickled beets, but you’d be surprised at the number of things you can pickle and can, freeze or dry for later use!

One of my kids’ favorites? Toasted pumpkin seeds.

RECIPE: Veggie Train


Get them grabbing

Last year, a nationwide study found that families who keep fruit out on their kitchen counter were more likely to have a lower BMI and weigh 13

pounds less than those who didn’t. I actually keep three bowls of fruit out, largely for variety, and also because apples need their own container due to the fact that they’ll ripen other nearby fruits too quickly. I’ve found the kids are more likely to eat fruit when it’s within reach.

I also keep a designated snack cupboard (for crackers, pretzels, nuts and cereal) and a bin in the fridge just for cold snacks. These include things like yogurt, cheese sticks, turkey pepperoni, hardboiled eggs, sliced lean meats and baby carrots. Sometimes I even have small containers of pre-made tuna or chicken salad. I’ve found that just having a stocked, highly visible and accessible bin makes them more likely to grab something healthy—even when I’m not around. 

RECIPE: Cucumber “Sushi” Rolls


Get (or be) a role model

Mother and her son eat healthy food Getting kids to eat healthy is nearly impossible if they see you eating junk food. “Do as I say, AND as I do” is the only way to create realistic expectations on healthy snacking.

Of course, just because I love broccoli doesn’t mean my daughter does. (My son is a freak of nature. When he was 7 years old he listed “kale” as his favorite food on a school worksheet.) One trick that worked for me was having my daughter’s uber-unpicky friend over for snacks. The girl would eat any fruit or vegetable I gave her to snack on, which made her a good role model for my daughter. (It worked so well that one night I got up from the dinner table for something and heard my daughter yell, “Mom! He stole my Brussels sprouts!” I’m quite sure that’s the only time in history that phrase has been uttered.)

A few times I made the mistake of assuming my kids wouldn’t like something, only to discover that they loved it at first bite! Refried beans, for example, are packed with protein and fiber, but I thought the consistency would scare them off. Both my kids now love them—even right out of the can. 

RECIPE: Homemade Hummus and Pita Chips


Get talking

Getting your kids to eat healthy snacks is about more than what you put in front of them. After all, you can’t be with them 24/7.

Part of the shift needs to come from conversations about nutrition and how different foods make our bodies and brains feel. Ask your kids to monitor their bodies after they eat something high in sugar. Do they feel a surge of energy but then a sudden crash? Now ask them how they feel after they eat ants on a log (i.e., peanut butter and raisins on celery) or a tuna fish sandwich. Do they have more sustained energy to jump on the trampoline or ride their bike?

I’ve talked to my kids about how addictive sugar is and that I love junk food but have to work hard to only eat small amounts or I crave more. Start your conversation early. I wasn’t sure my kids were old enough when I first started talking about “brain fog” and needing a nap after overeating, but they still repeat things back to me years later!

Getting your kids to eat healthy isn’t hard if you start them early and make it easy. Teaching kids to enjoy nutritious food and the way they feel when they eat healthy are habits they’ll likely continue through adulthood. 

Check out this “cool” ice cube tray idea!


17 Activities Your Family Will Love (that cost less than $17)

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By Guest Blogger Wendy Burt-Thomas

iStock_000041041392_MediumAccording to Value Penguin, the average American family spends more than $200/month on entertainment. Of course, that’s based on an average income of $63,784. If you’ve got an extra large family or make less than the average household, you might really feel the pinch when it comes to taking your family to say, a carnival.

Instead of focusing on what we can’t afford, let’s focus on all the things we can do for next to nothing. We’re talking $20 or less for my family of four, although many of these activities are free, thanks to things you have around the house. Plenty of them even work on rainy days when you don’t feel like splashing in puddles.

  1. Geocaching. My best friend has four kids and she swears this is one of their favorite things to do as a family. Assuming you’re one of the 7 in 10 Americans who own a smartphone, you’ve already got everything you need for your outdoor hunt for clues—and maybe a prize! (If you don’t own a smartphone but do own a GPS, you’re in luck too.)

Simple go to and create a free account. Type in your address and you’ll see all the nearby geocaches. (There are 2 million geocaches in the world and the U.S. has nearly half.) Just choose the one you want and enter the coordinates into your GPS or smartphone. Once you find the geocache, sign the log book, return the geocache to its original location and share your stories and photos online.

There are lots of different kinds of geocaches, from traditional to mystery caches (e.g., that make you solve puzzles) to multi-caches that provide a chain of clues to your next stop. Some geocaches encourage you to exchange toys or trinkets, so feel free to bring fun stuff to swap. You may even decide to create your own geocache!

  1. Have a Box Bonanza. My son is 8 and obsessed with building things: Legos, pseudo go-carts on his skateboard, survival huts out of sticks, you name it! When I see rain in the forecast, I simply head to our nearby Lowe’s and buy a bunch of extra-large moving boxes. At only $2.27 each, I can get more than enough for him and his sister to spend a couple hours building cars, pretend kitchens, rocket ships, and boats. Plus, it’s the perfect time for me to mop because they’re stuck in their boxes thanks to the floors being hot lava and all.
  1. Mark your calendar with all the Deal Days. If you’re a committed penny pincher, you may already know a lot of these in your area. But for those who don’t know, many zoos host several free days each year. Likewise, many movie theaters offer a discounted ticket price on one day (often Tuesday) of the week. Regal Cinemas offers the Summer Movie Express, which offers tickets to certain children’s movies on Tuesdays and Wednesdays for just $1.

Many museums and aquariums offer free family nights or days that kids can get in at no charge with an adult. Programs like Kids Bowl Free let you sign your child up for two free games of bowling every day all summer long. Certain holidays and recognition days tie in freebies for kids. One example is National Fishing and Boating Week, when most states offer free fishing days for kids (meaning no license is required).

If you’re lucky enough to live near a national park, activity duty military and their dependents, as well fourth-graders can get in free all year thanks to a program giving them free annual passes.

  1. Make a time capsule. Just imagine a family 200 years from now unearthing your family’s time capsule! You can include photos, a newspaper or magazine, a handwritten letter talking about what life is like today, a movie ticket stub, a few inexpensive toys or pieces of memorabilia, and some coins or a dollar bill. Maybe it’s not 200 years before it’s opened. Perhaps your family will open it together 50 years from now!
  1. Go on a nature scavenger hunt. I created one of these for all the neighborhood kids and they had a blast! Basically, it’s just a list of items they might find in your yard: a red leaf, a dandelion, a stick shaped like the letter Y, a pink rock, a four-leaf clover, etc. You can set a time limit (since not everyone will find a four-leaf clover!) and give everyone a small paper bag to carry their list and hold everything they find.

You can also use a checklist of things to look for, but not touch. This is good for parks or nature hikes where you don’t want nature disturbed.

  1. Host your own carnival. Designing the games is half the fun! Stack tin cans in a pyramid and let everyone try to knock them down with a rice-filled sock. Try to get a Frisbee in a hamper or hit ping pong balls off the tops of bottles with a Nerf gun. Be creative! There are countless ideas that you can create with things you already have around your home.
  1. Tour a fire station. Many fire stations hold open houses for the community, but some also let you schedule private tours! Kids usually get to touch the equipment, see where the fireman eat and sleep, climb on the fire trucks and maybe even slide down the pole!
  1. Play an active game to keep everyone moving. Hide and Seek, Kick the Can, Freeze Tag or even Charades on a rainy day will keep everyone off the couch. Some websites offer printable cards or random idea generators for Charades phrases.
  1. Set up a backyard campsite. A tent, s’mores and a (code compliant) campfire—it’s just like the real thing with the convenience of indoor plumbing!
  1. Create an indoor treasure hunt. I like to write rhyming clues for my kids. Here’s an example:

“Ready to start? Here’s your first clue:

A bright yellow book holds Clue number 2!”

Depending on your kids’ ages, you can keep it short and simple or make it much harder with more clues. The last clue should help them find a fun treat or prize.

  1. Host the Silly Olympics. Here’s another fun way to get your family outside on a beautiful day. Create an obstacle course or individual events (like the backwards crab crawl or carrying an egg on a spoon). Unless your kids are about the same age, games of speed don’t often feel as fair as games of balance or accuracy. Feel free to choose events that you know the younger children could win—such as somersaults or making farm animal noises while jumping on the trampoline.
  1. Build a massive fort. Buy a couple bags of clothespins the next time you’re at the store. (They’ve got a million uses so you won’t be wasting your $3.80 for 100.) Give everyone five minutes to gather every blanket, sheet and tablecloth in the house while you rearrange chairs for maximum awesomeness!
  1. Break out the indoor games. From board games and puzzles to card houses and paper airplane competitions, you can create a lasting memory without opening your wallet!
  1. Plant a garden. Everyone feels good when they touch soil and even if you live in a tiny apartment you can grow something! Try growing basil, mint or cilantro to use in your cooking, grow a lemon tree or plant your avocado pit and watch it grow into some pre-guacamole yumminess!
  1. Volunteer at an animal shelter. With the exception of a good dander allergy, there’s no reason not to spend the day living out your childhood dream! Yes, shelters and rescues need people to pet the puppies, cuddle the kittens and maybe even rub a rabbit or two! Many shelters post their volunteer opportunities on their websites, but you can always call to find out when to bring your brood.
  1. Create a family video for a faraway loved one. If Grandma is homebound recovering from a fall or cousin Cathy is living abroad, why not make a funny family video to share a slice of life? Take them on a tour of your town or let your kids pretend to be news reporters.
  1. Sign up for a free (or very cheap!) class.

Many stores offer free classes in hopes that you’ll spend money while you’re there. Michael’s has an extensive calendar of arts and crafts workshops (e.g., jewelry, drawing, mixed media, etc.) for as little as $2. (There are also free classes but some require you to bring or buy supplies, which vary in price.)

Home Depot always has free classes. Granted, some are about installing a toilet, but there are also ones on landscaping, kids’ projects, and even how to build a football toss game!

Sometimes you’ll find free CPR classes (usually for ages 9 and up), self-defense courses, art or dance classes, and even cooking classes. Just do a Google search for “free classes” followed by the name of your city. Many places will offer a sliding scale or waive the fee for military families. It can’t hurt to ask!

Don’t cave in to the pressure of spending a lot of money when your kids complain that they’re bored. There’s plenty of fun to be had without feeling guilty about being over-budget. Your word for the year is “CREATIVE!”

Do you have a favorite free or low-cost activity your family enjoys? Please share it in the comments for others to try!

Are Your Child’s Learning Struggles Turning You into a Monster?

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HiResYou’re frustrated and frazzled. You’ve been nagging at your kids for hours. Snapping. Yelling, even. You’re not happy with how you’re acting, but you can’t seem to stop the momentum, pull a U-turn and get yourself off Witchy Lane and back onto Reasonable Avenue.

Welcome to the club.

Every parent has days when life’s challenges feel… well, challenging. And if you’re the parent of a kid who is struggling, those challenges can feel absolutely overwhelming. Stress (as we all know) can bring out the worst in all of us. And if you’re feeling the stress of herding a resistant child through hours of homework, dealing with angry outbursts, or being stretched too thin, that stress can prompt you to respond in ways you know aren’t helpful.

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Eat Your Way to a Healthier Mind

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Steak BiteAccording to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, with one in three senior adults being impacted by the disease.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that a new study offers hope for people who want to lower their risk for Alzheimer’s.

Researchers at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, have developed a diet plan (which they refer to as the MIND diet) that they say may reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s by as much as 53 percent. That’s for people who follow the diet rigorously. But even people who follow the diet “moderately well” see results, decreasing their risk of developing Alzheimer’s by about a third.

The MIND diet divides foods into 10 food categories that are healthy, and 5 food categories that are to be avoided or limited.

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Liar, Liar

iStock_000000335618_MediumNot to give anyone an excuse for bad behavior or poor choices, but researchers are saying that “cognitive tiredness” later in the day can play a role in the decision to give in to temptation.

A number of studies seem to reveal similar findings. In one study, folks were far more likely to cheat on a task in the afternoon than in the morning. In another study, they were more likely to cheat after doing other tasks (like memorizing numbers) that left their brains somewhat fatigued.

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