Stephanie Harris: Creating Healthy Relationships with Food
With the start of school, many people are getting back into the swing of packing lunches or having their child eat in the school cafeteria. Both options have benefits, says Stephanie Harris, a registered and licensed dietitian, but there’s much more to childhood nutrition than school lunches. Childhood obesity is a growing health issue in the U.S., and National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month calls attention to the problem and solutions. We asked Stephanie Harris about what parents can do to help their kids develop healthy food relationships.
TK: How did you become interested in working in the field of nutrition?
Stephanie: Growing up I loved helping my mother prepare homecooked, Italian, family-style meals, while also assisting her in preparing for her local cooking classes. Later, in high school, I had the opportunity to participate in a career exploration program shadowing the St. John’s Healthy Lifestyle dietitians. It was there that I was introduced to my passion for the field of dietetics. I embraced my interest in food and observed how dietitians were uniquely qualified to help people pay more attention to what they’re eating, where their food comes from and how food can play a crucial role in health.
Before that experience, I was seriously considering a career as a physician to follow in my dad’s footsteps, but discovered my interest in medical nutrition therapy to help with disease prevention and management using dietary lifestyle choices. I often joke that I am the hybrid of my parents’ career passions.
TK: What is the difference between a nutritionist and a registered dietitian?
Stephanie: Great question! While some people use the terms “nutritionist” and “dietitian” interchangeably, there are distinct differences in education and legal credentialing. Registered Dietitian Nutritionists (RDNs) are food and nutrition experts who have met specific academic criteria to earn the RDN credential and have passed a national examination administered by the Commission on Dietetic Registration. RDNs complete a minimum of a bachelor’s degree accredited by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics as well as complete a supervised practice program performed in a career-related site. Conversely, a nutritionist may practice without any formal nutrition education, training, licensing or certifications, depending on the state.
TK: Now that school is back in session, what’s your top recommendation for what should be included in lunches? What is the item that they should avoid packing?
Stephanie: Involving children in planning and preparing their own lunchboxes gives them the opportunity to learn about healthy eating and to be engaged to make autonomous decisions about what they will be eating during the day.
Wondering what to pack? Try this Kids Lunch Formula: Protein (nut/seed butter, yogurt, cheese, meat, beans), Fiber (whole grain bread, crackers, tortilla, fruit, vegetable), Fat (nut/seed butter, yogurt, cheese, avocado), Fruit/Vegetable (pick 1 or 2), Satisfying crunch (pretzels, animal crackers, dry cereal, roasted chickpeas, crackers), a Fun Component (cutouts, napkin note, chopsticks, food picks), Exposure food (a tiny amount of food just for looking or touching), Bonus Nutrients (chia seeds, hemp hearts, ground flax, sesame seeds, ground nuts).
What to skip? All sweet drinks such as fruit juices, sports drinks, energy drinks, iced teas and soft drinks.
TK: Why is it important to recognize National Childhood Obesity Month, and how are you doing so?
Stephanie: Childhood obesity is a growing epidemic in the United States, affecting more than 18 percent of children, making it the most common chronic disease of childhood. Today, more and more children are being diagnosed with diabetes, hypertension and other co-morbid conditions associated with obesity and morbid obesity.
With these high rates, it is certainly important for us to be talking about body weight, but how we approach it is just as important. We must keep the big picture in mind when it comes to raising kids who enjoy food and respect their bodies. It is important to remember many children grow naturally and consistently at or above the percentiles used to classify childhood obesity who are perfectly healthy. A child’s weight may become a concern when the velocity or acceleration of weight-for-height changes abruptly over time.
TK: What can someone do if they are concerned about their child’s weight?
Stephanie: In today’s culture, weight can be a sensitive subject, especially for children and teens. Focus on wellness over weight. The key is to consider your child’s overall picture of health and to be mindful of the conversations you have in front of them about their bodies. The number one question to ask your pediatrician if you are concerned is “How has my child’s weight-for-height percentile changed over time?” You can discuss growth trajectories and referrals, if needed, versus using the phrases “losing weight” or “diets” that may invoke shame or guilt in front of them.
TK: Do you have suggestions for how to discuss health and exercise with kids?
Stephanie: Encourage open dialogue and listen as they share their thoughts and feelings about body image whenever they arise. Approach food and exercise as a way to care for and nurture your body, not to punish it or to manipulate it to look a certain way. Talk to your child about ways to give themselves the gift of physical activity. Explore what activities are fun and highlight that it should be a pleasure not punishment.
Food Talk: Approach food in a neutral way to create positive experiences with eating. Kids thrive in settings that are neutral, as this creates a space for them to learn and explore food and their bodies. Talk about food without using polarizing terms such as “good” or “bad” or “healthy” or “not healthy.” I often share with clients that the goal is not to raise super healthy eaters, but to raise confident eaters who have a positive relationship with food and their bodies, and who willingly eat a variety of foods that they enjoy.
TK: For kids who eat in the school cafeteria, what should parents suggest that their kids look for?
Stephanie: Look for the color! I encourage kids to eat the rainbow (and I do not mean Skittles) by selecting vibrant whole foods in each category of the color wheel as they will not only provide energy but a “superpower” for the body. Examples of said superpowers: Red foods help you have a strong heart, orange foods help us see in the dark, yellow foods help us heal cuts, blue foods support a strong brain, and green foods help us fight off sickness. These foods will also provide a good source of fiber, which will stick with your kiddo longer to keep hunger at bay and their mind focused on learning.
TK: What are your top three tips for giving kids healthy food options?
- Parents who want their children to eat healthfully can benefit by focusing on being good role models. Remember it’s not what we say, but what we do that matters most. Make sure you are eating regular, balanced meals yourself.
- Make it fun and try to be creative by offering the same food six different ways. Play the food critic game as a family by appealing to all the senses:
- Appearance: Color, shape, cut, size. Consider how is it plated.
- Smell: Hot food gives off more aromas versus room temp.
- Taste: Raw, cooked, seasonings?
- Texture/Touch: For example, apple slices versus applesauce, or a baked potato instead of oven fries.
- Avoid food bribes and rewards. Does this sound familiar? If you eat your dinner, you can have dessert… three more bites and then you can have dessert…. you have to finish everything on your plate before you can have dessert. Any time you use a certain type of food as a reward, it makes the reward food more desirable. That means it makes them want dessert more than they did before. Not only that, it makes them want the other food LESS. What does that mean? It means, if you use dessert as a way to get your child to eat vegetables, the longer you do it, the more they will want dessert and the less they will want veggies or whatever other food there is.
TK: As a busy parent of two young kids, you understand the need for healthy, easy and delicious recipes. Can you share an easy dinner recipe with very little prep time?
Stephanie: I am a fan of deconstructed meals. These are meals separated into individual components but served together. I think of it as make-your-own… [tacos, potatoes, pasta]. Overall, try to serve meals in their individual components so each person can choose what they need, meanwhile serving the same meal. Another plus is that it can be prepped in advance for convenient assembly all while allowing kids to be exposed to more foods with the option to eat them.
Example of easy weekly deconstructed meals:
Serve at least 1-2 things from each of the lines below. That way, you are serving a variety of food groups and nutrients.
Taco (Salad) Bar:
- flour tortillas, corn tortillas, hard shells, chips
- ground meat, chicken, fish, shrimp, cheese, beans
- lettuce, tomatoes, onion, cilantro, bell peppers
- avocado, guacamole, sour cream
(Your kid might only eat chips and guacamole)
- baking potatoes, sweet potatoes
- beans, ground meat, chili, shredded chicken, eggs, bacon, cheese
- broccoli, cauliflower, tomatoes, lettuce, onion, peppers
- butter, sour cream, pesto, avocado, curry sauce, cheese sauce, salsa, BBQ sauce
(Your kid might only eat cheese and bacon)
- any kind of pasta you enjoy, bread or rolls
- ground meat, meatballs, sausage, chicken, shrimp, cheese
- broccoli, tomatoes, green beans, lettuce/salad
- marinara, red sauce, pesto, alfredo, olive oil, butter
(Your kid might only eat pasta with butter)
TK: What are you passionate about right now?
Stephanie: I am passionate about creating customized and targeted nutrition care plans with the use of advanced technology and testing such as: the SpectraCell micronutrient blood test that provides the most comprehensive nutritional analysis available by measuring functional deficiencies at the cellular level; or the GI-MAP stool analysis that uses advanced DNA testing to assess levels of healthy bacteria, pathogenic bacteria, parasites, yeast, and viruses. It also uses advanced metabolic testing for inflammation, immune function, digestion, and absorption. It’s truly exciting to be able to use these modern resources to provide individualized medical nutrition therapy for my clients. The latest discoveries in food science research and functional food medicine excites me to continue my education in the ever-evolving field of dietetics.
You can find Stephanie Harris at NutritionTulsa.com.