I’m a single father who’s looking for “cooking guidance” for my 10-year-old daughter whose gaining weight. Can you help?

Jim asked Lauren:

Dear Lauren,

I’m a single father and I take care of my two kids (ages 6 and 10) every other weekend. I’m noticing that my daughter, in particular (the 10-year old), is really putting on weight. My ex-wife works during the week and has never been focused on promoting sound eating habits. As a result, the kids end up eating fast food often. And, quite honestly, I’m not the greatest cook (never was). So, on weekends, we usually end up eating pizza or take-out Chinese food. And, although I’ve tried, a night without dessert seems to equal “cranky kids.” As far as breakfast is concerned, all my kids want are sugar-filled cereals and, if not, they beg me to buy doughnuts. Personally, I’m not sure how to help to fix this (not just on my end but also when my kids are back with their mother). I know that if my ex-wife won’t make changes in my kid’s diet, then my making changes will be that much harder (on me) when they come for the weekend. I certainly don’t want to make food an issue that we argue about since spending weekends with the kids is already sometimes awkward and somewhat stressful. I really miss them and value our time together and I don’t know how to handle this. I’d really appreciate any advice on how to help my kids stay healthy and not become the “bad guy” in the process.

Lauren says…

Well, I must say, you’re a brave man to take on the job of fixing your children’s nutritional habits (and I truly applaud you)! First, let me say that I empathize with your situation, being a seemingly devoted father that only gets to see your kids on alternate weekends. Yes, being brought together for only short periods of time can make trying to influence the overall diet of your children a challenge. In addition, the after-divorce scenario, where a parent is sporadically thrust into the position of being “chief nurturer,” can often make a parent do things (or not) just to stay away from confrontations.

Regardless of your marital status, your first job as a parent is to provide your children with guidance and protection even when this meets resistance. Although, in the beginning, this can sometimes leave a parent feeling like the “bad guy,” if done with kindness and consistency, taking a firm stand when it comes to your children’s nutritional welfare will help them to see that there’s another (still delicious) way to approach food choices. This is also a potent way to show your kids that you love them enough to help them make positive changes, even at the risk of seeming annoying. Kids of divorce thrive best when their parents act like parents first, and not like scorned or displaced spouses vying for their children’s love and acceptance.

Changes in the Diet Can Be Totally Delish!

First, remove temptation: Keep food that you don’t want the kids to eat out of the house! This is the single best way to reduce conflicts since, if they don’t see it then eating it isn’t an option. Keeping an ample supply of good tasting, healthy alternatives is how you can start to give your kids the experience of becoming satisfied without eating things high in refined sugar or saturated fat.

Some foods to keep on hand:

Unsweetened dried fruits: Jumbo raisins, dried pineapple, mango slices, plump chewy dates, dried cherries and berries (strawberry, blueberries and even raspberries). Because there is a concentration of natural sugars in dried fruits you’ll need to limit the amount that they eat and you’ll also need to remind the kids to brush their teeth after they finish. Having said this, dried fruit is a great way to start to wean kids off commercially made cookies and candies.

Nuts: Keeping an assortment of unsalted nuts in the house is a great (and filling) way to increase the amount of protein in your children’s diet. If your kids aren’t crazy about nuts, try toasting them, which brings out their savory aroma and taste. Then, once cool, store them in an airtight canister or in sealed plastic bags or mix them with some dried fruit which is a healthy, delicious and energy boosting snack for the kids.

To toast nuts: Preheat the oven to 350°F. Place nuts on a shallow baking sheet and bake in the preheated oven for 8 to 12 minutes, depending on the type of nut. Use your nose as your guide. As soon as you smell that first savory waft of toasting nuts, they’re almost done. Nuts with skins toast quicker than blanched (skinless) ones and it’s best to shimmy the pan to occasionally distribute while they’re in the oven. (Over-toasting nuts with skins can leave them bitter-tasting.) Also, because nuts are all shaped differently, they require a different amount of time in the oven, so only place one type of nut on a baking sheet, when toasting.

Seasonal Fruits, Cheese and Vegetables: Keep fresh fruits, interesting cheeses, cut up vegetables and rinsed and dried salad greens in the house. Try making fruit and cheese kabobs with the kids as a fun activity. Serve fruit kabobs with yogurt, as a dip, or try alternating grape tomatoes with small squares of either “lite” Jarlsberg cheese or small balls of fresh mozzarella cheese (called Bocconcini). Serve these with vinaigrette, as a dip.

In the freezer: Keep an assortment of low and non-fat frozen yogurt and some fruity sorbets, which are fat-free. Then, buy a small ice cream scoop (called a cookie scoop) and when the kids get a hankering for something cold and soothing, give them a small scoop of creamy-feeling frozen yogurt and vibrantly colored sorbet. Using a cookie scoop for frozen desserts will not only help the kids to become satisfied with smaller portions, but this combination is very soothing and texturally diverse. And, if you strew a few fresh berries or sliced ripe banana in between and on top of the scoops, you’ve just enhanced this “dessert” nutritionally.

Instead of piling pasta underneath a favorite marinara sauce, you can use “spaghettied zucchini” which is healthy, great-tasting and just as twirl-able! You’ll need a gadget called a “vegetable turner,” available at specialty kitchenware shops and at many Japanese grocery stores. All you do is scrub and dry a zucchini (choose one with a wide girth and figure one zucchini will feed two people). Trim off the ends and attach the zucchini to the machine. As you crank the side handle, you’ll see long thin strands of zucchini extrude out of the other side. This can be done a day ahead and kept in the refrigerator, covered. To cook, just simmer the zucchini strands, until just tender, in a shallow pool of unsalted chicken or beef broth. Season to taste with a little salt and some freshly ground black pepper. (Kids love this and it’s a great way to lower they’re intake of carbohydrates.)

Add exercise to your weekend routine!
The best way to help children (and adults) to stay fit and healthy is to build into their routine, a regular form of exercise. And, exercising together as a family, gives you a fun, positive activity to do on weekends that doesn’t always revolve around the “sport” of eating. Some “family friendly” sports to consider: Roller skating or ice skating, bicycling, tennis, indoor and outdoor swimming, bowling, golf, jogging or just walking briskly.

As far as helping your kids to continue these positive changes, when with their mother: Blaming your ex for making your daughter gain weight is not the best way to help fix things. I suggest that you be the first one to start making positive changes in your children’s diet and exercise routine. Then, it would be great to write these changes down in a very friendly and literal way and send this note (or email it) to your ex-wife. You can mention, in this note, that you’ve noticed that your kids are accepting and enjoying these changes and that you wanted to share these positive changes with her because you know how much she cares about the health and well-being of “your” children. You can also ask for her support and welcome the exchange of thoughts, when it comes to how the kids eat, whether with you or with her. In other words, always take the high road in all of your relationships, but especially when it comes to parenting.

Now, regardless of age, here’s an easy recipe for Fresh Fruit Parfaits, that’s just as delicious for breakfast as it is for dessert!

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