Hospital aims to get kids eating right

Mike DeDoncker

Nathan Hamman figures he has seen the gamut of kids’ poor eating habits in just six months as a clinical and outpatient dietitian at OSF Saint Anthony Center for Health.

That has included little eaters so picky they border on having nutrient deficiencies, 80-pound three-year-olds and teens with high cholesterol, all of which led Hamman to present his first Healthy Eating for Healthy Kids class this week at the center as a way to approach parents and kids about forming healthy habits.

“The amount of pediatric obesity is rising,” Hamman said. “Kids don’t know how to cook and they’re not interested in healthy eating so we need to talk to adults about passing on those responsibilities of healthy eating at a young age instead of waiting until they are 16 or 18, when it’s too late to change sometimes.”

Hamman said a good first step in teaching healthy eating habits is for parents to practice what they preach.

“Kids are picky,” he said. “They don’t want to eat fruits and vegetables and, if they never see mom and dad eating them, they probably aren’t going to eat them either.

“Sometimes, it’s just a matter of the busier the adult gets the less likely it is for them to cook or eat well-balanced meals — it’s whatever is quick, easy and convenient a lot of times and that’s not always the best choices.”

Hamman said involving kids in such things as grocery shopping, observing in the kitchen, food preparation or just setting the table may increase their attention to learning healthy habits.

Healthy eating also important for kids, Hamman said, because they need nearly as many calories per day as adults.

“They’re growing, developing muscles and bones, but the problem with kids is that their stomachs are a lot smaller than an adult’s,” Hamman said. “So they need to eat a lot more often to get all the food groups and the nutrients they need.”

A critical lesson, he said, is portion or serving size “because the portion sizes that we get, even if we buy at a (grocery) store are getting bigger and bigger.”

Hamman showed the class of six parents and eight kids that a serving of fruit (about half a cup) would fit in the palm of his hand while other serving sizes would equal approximately a deck of cards for meats or a game die for such things as cheese or butter.

“People are almost always surprised at correct portion sizes,” Hamman said, “but when we say they should get at least five servings of fruit a day and show them the size, they say that isn’t so bad. When they see something like serving size of butter, their immediate reaction is ‘oh, I have to cut back.’ ”

Hamman also said it is important to note that nutrition information labels on liquids usually are written for eight ounces of the product so such things as sports drinks, soda and juices are higher in calories than they might seem.

“I generally try to get parents to limit kids to one small glass of juice per day,” Hamman said, “and to get them to give the kids more water. If you start drinking water at an early age, you’re more likely to drink water as an adult and avoid sugary drinks.”

Hamman said he would like to establish the class on a schedule of three to four times per year and then schedule anyone who needs additional help for individual appointments.

“Teaching healthy behaviors when kids are young will help them as they get older,” Hamann said. “People may think 'oh they’re just little kids and they’ll grow out of picky eating habits,' but if you let it go on for too long you have picky adults who won’t eat anything.”

Mike DeDoncker can be reached at (815) 987-1382