Parenting: Pizza vs Vegetables: How to Feed Our Kids with Jill Castle

Parenting: Pizza vs Vegetables: How to Feed Our Kids with Jill Castle

We are really glad that you've joined us as we're talking about parenting this month. Today, we want to get really practical and talk about nutrition, and meal planning, in short food. We're calling this episode Pizza versus Vegetables: How to Feed Our Kids because this can be tricky for a single parent. It's a full-time job just to keep them fed. 

We all face the dilemma of trying to get our kids to eat healthily, but with limited time and resources as single parents, it can be a struggle to consistently provide the necessary nutrition. We find ourselves giving in to the convenience of fast food when life gets busy. How do we avoid the guilt and shame that often comes from giving in driving through Taco Bell or Chick-fil-A because it's easier than going to the grocery store and having an argument with our kids? 

Today we're going to discuss some simple strategies to make eating healthier as a family a sustainable habit. 

Our guest is Jill Castle, a pediatric dietician, author, speaker, and consultant with a long history of educating parents about childhood nutrition. 

As single parents, we don't have much time or money to worry about nutrition with our kids. We're just trying to get through and make sure they eat something. 

Jill, what should we focus on and prioritize when it comes to feeding our kids?

Well, it's a great question, and it might be a surprise to your listeners coming from a pediatric dietician, but I vote for connection at the table as the number one important thing.

When we are thinking about children, yes, of course, they're growing and developing their physical health, but they are also growing and developing their emotional well-being and connecting with the family, conversing, laughing, joking, and communicating. All of this is incredibly important to a child's emotional well-being and it oftentimes gets forgotten. We get so singularly focused on food and nutrition, we forget that we're nurturing as well as nourishing our children.

Can you break down by age group what types of food our kids should have optimally?

I'm sure many parents have heard of a food group based on their associated similar nutrients. In the dairy group, all the foods have the same nutrients, calcium, and vitamin D protein. All the foods in the fruit group have similar nutrients. And the same with the vegetable group and proteins group, and grain group. 

There are five main food groups, and the idea is to try to get as many of the food groups on the table at each meal. Not complicated, not gourmet, but that balance of five different food groups hits the 40 different nutrients that kids need on a daily basis. It's a simple framework to use. I always say if you can get five, great. If you can't go for four, go for three. You have three meals a day, you have snacks during the day. You have a lot of different opportunities to try and hit those different food groups. But using food groups as a framework really helps target all those different nutrients.

Are there age groups that some of these are more important than others?

They're all important for all ages. What really differs is the portion sizes—how much of each food group goes on the plate. And obviously, for smaller children, it's a smaller amount. For bigger kids, it's a bigger amount. And also we want a lot of variety. We want, in the fruit group, for example, apples, bananas, oranges, and grapes.

I try to keep it super simple with all families. For little kids saucers for snacks, salad plates for dinner. Dinner plates for kids over the age of 13. You don't have to measure portions, and you don't have to make it super complicated, but you can target all the nutrients by trying to get as many different food groups in a balanced meal. A lot of people recognize what a balanced meal is. 

Teenage boys particularly have the highest caloric and nutritional needs of all kids at any stage of growth and development. They need more food, a dinner plate for breakfast, a dinner, a plate for lunch, a dinner plate for dinner, and probably two or three snacks a day. It might be a sandwich for a snack, for example, a bowl of cereal with milk and maybe a piece of toast with it. To achieve these and keep the variety and all the nutrients at play, you are stacking the eating sessions throughout the day more frequently. Five eating sessions for a teenage boy. For a teenage girl is probably more like three meals and one snack.

If you have an athlete, they need more snacks. The age of the child matters. As they're growing their energy needs and their nutritional needs do change. But the other part of it is, nutrition isn't necessarily so prescriptive. There's this whole idea of being strategic with what you offer. We know there are certain nutrients that are much more filling. Protein is a very filling nutrient that makes you feel full after you eat it. Same with fiber. Fiber is a very filling nutrient. If you have a meal that has a source of protein, has whole grains, has fruits, has vegetables, you're going to be serving protein and fiber, and that's going to help your child feel full and help them stretch three or four hours until the next snack or the next meal.

But there's also this idea of appetite regulation and understanding, when your body needs food and when your body is satisfied. Many kids are very good at recognizing when their body needs to eat. They are less good at recognizing when they are full. And sometimes parents have to help them, asking “Is your body still hungry?” or “Are you satisfied?” We have to help them with the language so they can understand when they are hungry or satisfied and when is a good time to stop eating and wait until the next meal or snack. 

What are some practical ways that we can help them discover if they're full?

One technique, if you have young children starting the conversation early about helping them recognize when they're hungry and when they're satisfied. Kids don't have that language, so we need to help them with that language. If your child is melting down because it's been three hours since they ate, you can help them by saying, “Wow, it seems like you might be hungry. It's been quite a while since we had something to eat. Let's, try and sit down for a snack, or let's have our next meal.” And making the connections with the words hungry, full, or satisfied in older children, helping them take pauses when they're eating. If you're sitting around the table for a meal and you have a fast eater, encourage them to slow down, put their utensils down, and have a sip of their drink in between every, three or four bites for example.

But pausing and explaining it's called mindful eating, really being aware of the sensation of how food feels in your mouth, how it feels in your stomach pausing to recognize these sensations inside the body. And also pause and pay attention to the food that our kids are actually eating, removing distractions at the table like phones or TV so that they're fully paying attention to what they're eating. When we're distracted, it's hard to recognize when we're full. A lot of people do mindfulness in different ways. They meditate, they do yoga, they go outside, they take a walk, and they look around. You can do those same things with food and with eating, slowing down is a great first step.

What if our kids are addicted to the bad stuff? All the sugars, all the candies, all the pizza rolls. How do we handle that without being too militant?

When children are appearing to be obsessed with food, the good news is there's no addiction to food in children that's been proven in the research literature. So that can be a relief for parents to hear. Kids aren't addicted to certain types of food, but they do enjoy foods and they can have an emotional attachment to food. It stimulates the dopamine reward system in the brain. They do get excited, they feel good, and they look forward to it but in terms of how you regulate treats for most children, it means don't make those foods forbidden, number one—because that feeds into this whole, sneaking and “I want what I can't have, so I'm really going to be looking for it and I'm really going to try and get it.” 

Having a strategy for these foods whereby your child knows that every Friday it's pizza roll night, and he can look forward to that is a good idea. And so during the week, that helps you too, because you can say, we have pizza rolls on Fridays and it's not Friday yet, it's only Wednesday, but in two more days, we're having those pizza rolls. Your child looks forward to it, it's predictable, and you have a strategy and a way to respond to your child that helps them anticipate and predict those foods that they really love. And that can be used with sweets, it can be used with pizza rolls, it can be used with going out for dinner, or with ice cream. 

What’s your advice on sugar? How do we handle it in a healthy way?

The guidelines say children have about 10% of their total calories during the day from sugary foods and high-fat fried foods like french fries or potato chips, for example. What does that look like on a day-to-day basis? We're talking averages and again, a strategy. I used a system with kids called the 90-10 rule. 90% of what they eat in a given day are those wholesome, highly nutritious foods and even decently nutritious foods. Things like cereal, tuna, and beans.

90% of what they eat in a day is healthy, but there's room for around 10% to be from sweets and treats, which means one or two sweets or treats on average each day in a normal size portion for a child. We're not doing the biggie candy bars, we're doing the normal-sized candy bars, two cookies for a serving. It's really averaged out because some kids go days without having any sweets and have a ton of them on the weekend, for example. 

The best way to implement it is again having a strategy. I used to say to my kids Friday after school is ice cream. We went to Sweet Cece's. We go to Sweet CeCe's right from school and you can have whatever you want. There's a limit on all the toppings and the price. But you can pick whatever you want. I don't care. That's our day. That's what we do. 

I used to pack their lunches and I wouldn’t pack any sweets in their lunches. I have four kids. One or two of them would say, “How come we're the only kids with no sweets in our lunch?” I said because you get to go to Sweet Cece's after school on Fridays. And then on the weekends, they had their soccer games and all their weekend activities. And I didn't police those foods then.

But during the week, I had a formula when I'm making breakfast, I'm packing lunches, we're having dinner. We didn't really do dessert during the week, but then it was a free-for-all on the weekends in a lot of ways. There are a lot of different ways you can strategize. It really is best to do it based on what is reasonable for you and your family, but with no strategy, you're going to get above 10%. You're going to be like 30%, 40%. And that's where it becomes problematic and troublesome for children and troublesome. 

I always advise families, you don't have to be super strict with them, but you do need to have some policy around sweets. When do they happen? And then on the backside of that, permission to eat them. You don't get to say Sweet Cece’s on Friday after school and then pull the plug at the last minute. That's not fair. And it's not kind. And so you want to allow them to eat those foods when they are deemed available. 

How do we create a healthy relationship with food for our kids?

Role modeling, that's the number one, in all health behaviors, not just food. But when it comes to developing a healthy relationship with food, a lot of it is the interaction between you and your child. We call them feeding practices. And these can be rewarding your child with dessert for tasting broccoli, for example. They could be pressuring your child to eat more food when they're full or don't want to. It could be restricting sweets and treats because you feel like your kid has too many. So you hide them all and don't let your child have any access to them. Those types of practices, actually damage the relationship with food. 

It also helps children to be neutral about food. All food tastes great. All foods have a place. That doesn't mean that we have them every day, but we can have them sometimes or we can have them occasionally. And these foods, we want to have a lot of the time because they're highly nutritious and really good for our bodies. 

It also helps children to have choices and to have autonomy. We can let our children choose what to put on their plates. That encourages their autonomy. You are deciding what the menu is. You are deciding what goes out on the table. But you're allowing them to make choices for themselves that help them develop a really good relationship with food. 

What if we have those kids who are picky eaters?

I know for a lot of parents the urge is to help their children eat, but actually, the opposite is true. Not urging them is better than urging them. Creating a positive, happy connection around mealtime and not making food a big deal, but just making food in the background instead of in the foreground. I know a lot of parents, who can't help it, but they focus mealtime on what their child's eating or not eating. And that's a buzzkill for kids. They really want to come and be with their family and laugh and have good connections. And all the conversation turns to what are you eating and what you're not eating. 

You can say, “I am confident you will find something here that you can eat and disengage.” This is really what I coach parents on a lot. If you have a child who is very picky and or what we call extremely picky, these are children who are still picky after the age of six and they might have more of a sensory component to their pickiness or a medical component or a mechanical component, which keeps them picky for a little bit longer than the typical phase of picky eating for those children. 

Those children may need more help. They may need more specialized caretaking from a healthcare provider who specializes in picky eating. I've worked with a lot of those children over the course of my career. I can tell you that a lot of the ongoing pickiness stems from unaddressed sensory sensitivities. And we have to address those. We have to provide therapy for those children so they can overcome those sensitivities. It also comes from, that push-pull dynamic between the parent and child around food that oftentimes needs reparation and help. There are lots of reasons why children can be picky for longer periods of time and there usually is a really good reason. And we have to unearth that and help that child with extra help. 

If I'm a parent and I'm listening to this and I say I need that kind of help, is it a dietician, a pediatric dietician?

It could be a pediatric dietician who specializes in feeding therapy. It could be a speech-language pathologist, or it could be an occupational therapist. Someone who has experience and specialization in feeding therapy. They're going to be able to look at the child, figure out what the sensitivities or the sensory sensitivities are, and apply therapies that will be really helpful to the child. One therapy is desensitizing them to those characteristics in food that are off-putting.

Do you have resources that we could point people to that give a little bit more direction for parents whose kids have special needs?

I specifically have resources around ADHD. There's a lot of nutrition research and evidence around the role of certain nutrients that are helpful to ADHD medication support. Nutrition doesn't cure it. But it is very supportive because food is an amazing thing. It stabilizes your blood sugar, which makes your brain work more stable. It keeps your moods from fluctuating up and down. And for kids, we advise every three to four hours they're either having a meal or having a snack. That consistent level of carbohydrates, protein, and fat helps keep the blood sugar stable, which helps keep the mood and emotions stable.

We know there's a lot of research coming out now also around mood and mental health and the role of nutrition. And then we also have a lot on gut health. A healthy gut and gut-brain access. The healthy gut feeds the brain and the immunity and all kinds of things. So food is a challenging thing to talk about in one sense because food is super important for children and the nutrients are super important. From a very early age, the nutrients from food basically produce the information highway within the brain.  And so food is essential and critical. But at the same time, when we make too much of a focus on it or too big of a deal about it, it changes the psychodynamics between children and their parents and how children view the food.

And so there's this fine line of how do we do this without overdoing it. There's definitely a role for good nutrition in mental health and in learning disabilities and behavioral challenges. There's a role for it in growth and development. Kids don't grow if they don't get enough. And we also know that when they get too much, they might grow too much. And so food is a wonderful thing in a child's life. When we medicalize it or problematize it becomes no fun. And honestly, my feeling has always been I want children to grow up enjoying food. I want them to enjoy a meal when they sit down. I don't want them to come to a table and dread coming to the table because of what they're going to hear or what they're going to experience. I want them to be adventurous with food to try lots of different things. And I don't want them to feel like they have to play the good food-bad food game from an early age.  

Do you have any meal prep hacks?

Nothing has to be perfect and nothing has to be gourmet. It can really be a throw-together meal and be completely perfectly nutritious and adequate. I love the idea of theme nights, which help coordinate the week for parents and for their children. Many children love breakfast foods for dinner and there are no rules that say dinner food has to be dinner food, it can be breakfast food. Another theme is taco Tuesday or fast food. There are a lot of different things, but theming different nights of the week makes it predictable for children and easier for parents.

Also, save homemade meals for the weekend when you have more time. Do the semi-homemade stuff or the throw-together meals or leftovers when time is crunched. Remember a sandwich and a bowl of soup is totally fine. A bowl of cereal and toast is completely fine. Add a piece of fruit and a glass of milk or juice and you're okay. It doesn't have to be complicated. Yo-Yo nights when my kids got older, one night a week was a yo-yo night, which meant “you are on your own.” This is what you can choose from, but you are in charge. And that not only gave me a break, but it built their autonomy, their cooking skills, and their hands on with food in the kitchen. They're cleaning up skills. There are a lot of things that you can do with meal planning that doesn't have to be looking like Sunday night I'm sitting down, I'm writing down all the meals. Now I have to write down the grocery store list. Now it’s Monday and I have to get all the groceries. It doesn't have to look like that.

And there is room for fast food. I don't believe in shaming or guilting. Do what works. If it's fast food every night, you might take a step back and say where can I add a Clementine to the McDonald's meal? There are things that you can do to keep upping the nutrition without the guilt and really saving on time. And we need more self-compassion. Beating ourselves up doesn’t help.

Are there any examples of hills to die on with food?

I would say, no raw sushi before they're age five. I'm not going to say, “No sugar ever.” If there's a food allergy, that’s absolutely no. I think that all foods can fit. 

You really need to be thinking about what foods are you comfortable fitting into your child's diet. Maybe take a step back and say, every time my child eats this stuff, I'm feeling guilty and not good about this, which says more about you than it says about the child. 

Too much food repetition is where some families get tripped up. They get stuck feeding the same thing over and over again. And that really can short-circuit nutrition, but it also can cause food boredom in children. And so that’s the one area where I feel like it's a missed opportunity for kids. Kids are supposed to be learning about lots of different foods as much as possible. And wherever you can fit that in is amazing. But serving the same breakfast every day. This happens a lot with families, same breakfast every day. As your nutrition therapist I would say, can I push you for one day to change it up? Do something different one day out of the week. Just to get the variety of food exposure and food learning into the mix.


There’s room for lots of grace to be given and we don’t need to shame ourselves.

Have a strategy that works for you regarding sweets or favorite foods.

Food doesn’t need to be complicated or gourmet. We also need to be neutral about food.

We need to teach our kids how to make good choices.

We want our kids to have a healthy relationship with food.

When you first became a solo parent, what is something someone did for you that meant the world to you?

Marissa: After my husband died, a Boy Scout Troop asked me to put a cooler on our back porch. I knew every night we were going to show up and there was going to be food in the cooler. 

Robert: There was a time when the head of youth at the church we attended came up to me. He knew I was a single dad and said, “I want you on this Saturday or whatever Saturday just take the day off. The girls in the youth group are going to take your girls and they're going to the mall and then the rest of the entire youth group are going to clean your house from top to bottom. You're just not allowed to be there. If you'll trust us with that, we'll make sure that you have a clean house. Being a single parent, there's only so much you can do. And deep cleaning is not one of those things typically for me at least. I almost cried because it was just something that never got done and my girls were going to have a timeout. I was going to be able to go watch a movie or something and people were going to love on me. That always sticks out as one of the nicest things that happened to me.  

Elizabeth: I really needed community. I knew that from the get-go as soon as my divorce was final. And so I showed up to a little parent group in person. That was back before Covid. We had those groups in person back then, and I walked in the door—you think it's nerve-wracking pushing a button to connect on Zoom—it’s very nerve-wracking to walk into a room full of strangers in a big room at church. But I go in and check the place out, I'm getting a slice of pizza because we had dinner. And a girl named Jenny walked up to me and said, “Hey, you're new here, right?”

And I said, yeah, I am. And she said well, come sit with me. And then she just took me under her wing and included me in Bible studies, included me in outings, different things. It's hard showing up in a new place just in general. It's also really hard to show up in a new place as a freshly divorced single parent. And so to have someone who is so welcoming and friendly, it’s just beautiful.

Robert: I just noticed in all three of our situations, they're little things. They're not huge things that make a massive difference. The point that I'm taking is the small gestures that you think are insignificant can have just as much weight and just as much gravity as the things that we're talking about here. So never ever bypass an opportunity to reach out and make someone feel loved because it makes a huge impact. I'm grateful for that question.

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