Even as Anita Fuentes carefully places pieces of flour-dredged chicken into a pan of hot oil, the mother of three acknowledges she'd like to cut back on such dishes -- family favorites or no. "We don't eat a lot of fried chicken and fish, but we do eat it," she says.
Her children -- Jaylen, 5, Simone, 13, and Amber, 18 -- each has his or her own food preferences; fried food, usually reserved for dinner, is one type of dish on which they can agree.
Fuentes likes to cook, having learned how from her late husband, who catered professionally. Although she grew up on heavy Southern cooking, at which her mother excels, she tries to offer more wholesome foods for her kids. Obesity runs on her side of the family, and stomach cancer on her late husband's side. But she can't control everything her kids eat when they're at school, at her mother's house or out with friends, and she worries they might be overweight and underweight.
Fast food is out of the question; she refuses to buy it. "Taco Bell, Jack in the Box. That's all the kids see, and it does bother me," she says. "You have to go far to see healthy foods." So though her intentions are good, Fuentes is unaware of some unhealthful ingredients -- especially refined sugar -- lurking in favorite foods at home.
Nutrition expert Emily Ventura's quick tour through the pantry reveals the sugar in instant, pre-sweetened oatmeal packets, artificially flavored maple syrup, sweetened iced tea and a couple of containers of fruit punch. In the freezer is a package of high-fat, high-calorie chicken nuggets. Then there were the highly processed, nutrient-low chips, pancake and corn bread mixes and a pasta-and-sauce packet.
Ventura finds some smart choices as well: plain grits, plain oatmeal, vegetables and readily available fruit for snacking. Fuentes says she always serves a green vegetable at dinner, introducing new fruits and vegetables periodically. Jaylen likes carrots, and the kids love beans and yams.
On a recent weeknight, Fuentes buzzes around the kitchen preparing frozen green beans. She adds a little cooking spray instead of butter or oil to the pan, then dollops a couple of tablespoons of butter into the mashed potatoes. Ventura offers her some fruits and vegetables she'd gotten that day at a local farmers market, and Jaylen immediately goes for a carrot. Then, just before dinner is served, all three children bolt downstairs when they hear the ice cream truck and reappear holding cold treats. Fuentes isn't happy -- promptly putting the treats into the freezer until after dinner -- but says this type of indulgence is rare.
When the dinner plates are cleared, Ventura sits with Fuentes and explains how much sugar her kids may be getting. She places seven teaspoons of sugar into a cup -- the equivalent of what's in a glassful of fruit punch -- and Fuentes is shocked. She thought the punch was a smart choice. "Wow," she says. "That's already a lot of sugar. I just figured, they're kids, and it's juice." She's also surprised at the amount of sugar -- 60 grams, or about 14 teaspoons -- in 16 ounces of Jaylen's favorite pre-made chocolate milk.
"Unless you see it like this," Ventura says, "you can't really imagine how much sugar you're drinking." If going cold turkey on the fruit punch isn't an option, she suggests diluting it with water, and making iced tea and oatmeal from scratch. Even adding a teaspoon of brown sugar to the cooked oats wouldn't come near what's in the pre-sweetened stuff.
Then there's the matter of daytime meals. Simone sometimes skips breakfast and lunch or has low-nutrition snacks such as chips. Fuentes often picks her up after school with fruit and water ready, but Ventura points out that going for long periods without eating can trick the body into starvation mode, making it difficult to lose weight and maintain a steady metabolism. As for Amber, she favors fast food, which concerns Fuentes: "I tell her to try to make healthier decisions because you don't know what's going on in your stomach."
Ventura encourages the family to try some other items from the farmers market, such as emerald pluots and a yellow pepper, both of which receive high marks from the kids and Fuentes. Cut-up vegetables, she says, are a far more nutritious snack than chips.
But Fuentes knows that eating healthfully can be costly, especially when it comes to fresh fruits and vegetables. "The higher quality foods and the organic foods, the whole wheat pancakes, are expensive," she says. But she wants to make changes, and says she'll try to make it to a farmers market nearby.
We encouraged Fuentes to keep a food diary (see sidebar) for Ventura to review. Some of her suggested changes: Allocate less money for processed foods such as chips and sugary drinks, and more for whole foods. Instead of buying bottled water, get a tap filter, which will eventually save money.
What they're doing right
Fuentes occasionally fixes unsweetened oatmeal for breakfast, and Ventura praises her for cooking most meals, making sure the family eats together several nights a week and avoiding fast food. The family also keeps fruit on the counter, so it's accessible to the kids, who eat it regularly.
Where they need improvement
Those sugary drinks have got to go, or at least be reduced. Having cut-up vegetables as a pre-dinner snack can cut down on the chip consumption. Serving more baked or sautéed entrees instead of fried will cut down on fat.