Wendy Donahue
Chicago Tribune

Parents have a new ally in the effort to clean up their kitchens and improve their children’s eating habits — and their own.

“Kids are hugely interested in the cooking shows like Iron Chef,” said Jodie Shield, co-author of Healthy Eating, Healthy Weight for Kids and Teens (Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 2011) and a registered dietitian in Chicago.

Seize that as an impetus to cook and eat more at home, using vegetables and other fresh ingredients, just as the chefs do.

“What’s exciting about healthy eating is, the recommendations for most families are the same thing we keep saying,” Shield said. “But I think they’re starting to be heard more.”

A diet with total fat at 25-30 percent of calories, saturated fat less than 10 percent of calories, and cholesterol intake less than 300 milligrams has been shown to reduce bad cholesterol in healthy children older than 2.

Tracking numbers like those for weeks (or even a day) isn’t realistic for most parents, let alone children. So Shield recommends referring to ChooseMy?Plate.gov, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s heir to the food pyramid.

That plate visual in your mind can help your kid load it up, she said. “Portion size fits into all of this.”

Shield outlined some healthy eating habits that parents should establish:

• Start with dairy. “When I look at a low-fat diet, I look at dairy right away, because it’s such a big part of kids’ diets,” she said.

At age 2, most children should shift to 1 percent fat or skim milk, Shield said. “But I can tell you it doesn’t happen. Most people I talk to drink 2 percent, and 2 percent still has a lot of fat.”

An 8-ounce glass of 2 percent milk has 120 calories, 5 grams total fat, 3 of which are saturated, and 20 milligrams of cholesterol. By comparison, skim has 80 calories, no fat and 5 milligrams of cholesterol.

“If kids are drinking four cups of milk a day, it’s very healthy for them to make the change,” Shield said, “and both are equally nutritious, assuming they are fortified with vitamins A and D, as most are.”

Substitutes such as almond milk may not have the same vitamins, she pointed out, so compare labels.

“We need vitamin D to absorb calcium, which has been a big problem. Especially in the Midwest, most people are fairly deficient. We don’t get enough sun so our bodies don’t make enough.”

• Make vegetables tasty. They don’t have to be raw, Shield said. “But you don’t have to cook them in butter. If you’re going to add fat, try olive or canola oil. It still has calories, but they’re much healthier.”

She is not above cooking green beans in bacon fat — once in a while.

“I’d like to start with healthy fat, which helps with certain vitamins being absorbed, but if you give kids a little ranch dressing and they eat a few more, that’s okay, too. The point is to get them to love to eat healthy foods.”

• Direct the sweet tooth to fruits or low-fat dairy. “Fruits are fat-free and wonderful,” Shield said. And they don’t have to be organic. “There’s no science that shows organic is healthier.”

For yogurt, look for low-fat or fat-free, and consider smaller packages. Don’t rule out an occasional treat.

• Seek fiber; watch sugar. Soluble fiber, as in oatmeal, beans and many fruits, can make you feel more full and lower LDL, the bad cholesterol. “Oatmeal is one of the best cereals kids can eat,” Shield said. “Instant oatmeal is [okay], but get plain and add your own sugar or whatever else,” since some packets are loaded with sugar.

Half of the grains you eat should be whole grains, as in some boxed cereals. Those have insoluble fiber, which can help prevent constipation.

“Here’s a little trick parents can do as they’re reading labels. It only works if there’s no fruit in the cereal, because raisins have natural sugar, and the number on the label lumps natural and artificial sugars together.

“Divide the grams of sugar by 4 to find out how many teaspoons of sugar are in a serving. Aim to keep that number under 2 teaspoons,” Shield said.

The formula doesn’t work for yogurt and other dairy products, because they have lactose, a natural sugar.

“Natural sugar isn’t the problem,” Shield said.

Note that some ingredients, like corn syrup or brown rice syrup, aren’t called sugar, but that’s what they are.

• Choose meat, poultry and fish carefully. Opt for lean cuts, such as loins and rounds. Buy skinless chicken. “Skin doubles the fat,” she said.

Though they are higher in cholesterol than boneless skinless breasts, boneless skinless chicken thighs are less expensive, have more flavor and are more forgiving of novice cooks.

Eat fish, rich in omega 3 fatty acids, at least twice a week. Try grilled or baked fish such as cod, flounder, tilapia, shellfish and salmon (if it’s not too strong for your family’s tastes).

Present unfamiliar foods in a familiar way; Shield’s kids, for instance, love fish tacos.

• Take advantage of reference guides. If you eat fast food, look at the nutrition boards in the restaurant, or download a fast food app, Shield said.

(Fast Food Calorie Counter, available on both iTunes and Google Play for 99 cents, is a popular one.)

Shield frequently consults www.bestfoodfacts.org, which interviews and fact-checks advice from food experts.

Her blog http://healthyeating?forfamilies.com has tips and recipes, including one of her most popular, lemon chicken.