At this point in what is hopefully America's waning love affair with fast food, it's as clear as the water we should order instead of soda that the stuff isn't health food, or in many cases, even food at all. But here's a side order of something else to think about: fast food has been linked to more asthma, eczema and rhinitis in kids.
According to a study published in the journal Thorax, data from more than 500,000 children and teens in 50 countries showed that an increased risk of severe asthma as well as severe rhinoconjunctivitis and severe eczema were associated with the consumption of fast food more than three times a week.
The study's not conclusive, but after accounting for other explanations, the smoking grease gun appears to point at the whopper pile of sleazeburgers, yucky fried muck nuggets, ick filets, taco hellwiches, and other fast food that the kids regularly ate. The plausible culprit, researchers suggest, might be the trans fatty acids, saturated fats, sodium, carbohydrates, sugar and/or preservatives these contain.
But it may be simpler than that: The study also found that for the adolescents and children studied, a potential protective effect on severe asthma was associated with the consumption of three or more weekly fruit servings. Here's my thought: When we eat fast food, we're not eating fruit and getting all its disease-fighting, immune-boosting nutrients. Maybe what's in fast food doesn't matter as much as what's not.
Either way, it doesn't change the solution: eat more fruits and veggies and less fast fakery. Here are some ways to get your own brood to pick from that healthier menu:
Whip it. You can hide almost anything in a puree. And you can hide a puree in almost anything. So don't just think fruit smoothies. Slip pureed vegetables into sauces. Add whipped squash or carrots to mac 'n cheese. Beets to meatloaf. Broccoli to burgers. Or serve purees straight—like cauliflower whipped with butter.
Dip it. No kid can resist dips. (One study found that they increase broccoli consumption by 80%!1) Salad dressings, hummus, mild fruit salsas, and homemade yogurt and cheese dips all make thin-sliced, bite-sized vegetables sing.
Cheese it. Cheese rocks and so does anything served in it. Not every vegetable is a cheesification candidate, but cruciferous types like broccoli benefit greatly. Also corn, mushrooms, pearl onions and zucchini. And don't just stick to cheddar. Alfredo sauces, Swiss varieties, and Monterey jack work, too.
Freeze it. Use frozen berries and small fruit chunks instead of ice in juices and spritzers. Or make your own fruit popsicles.
Tease it. Most kids have a sensitivity to bitterness2, which helps explain why they avoid vegetables and what we can do about it. Butter and salt, for example, ease bitterness to make even the dreaded Brussels sprouts palatable. Maple syrup jazzes up yams, carrots, and squash. Such add-ins aren't health food. But they're better than not eating vegetables at all.
Play with your food. Give fruits and vegetables fun names when you serve them. Make plate faces with them. Get your kids to help cook them. Have a fondue night. All of these strategies increase interest.
Eat well early and often. A phenomenon known as nutritional imprinting finds that the foods moms eat while pregnant and breastfeeding as well as the first solid foods we eat as babies imprint our tastes for life. The more variety and flavor we squeeze into those impressionable early days, the better we'll eat as children and adults.
Serve these kinds of strategies on your plate, and you can train your kids' palates to appreciate and even crave healthy whole foods and their flavors, a result that's worth seconds any day.