whole-grain pasta for kids meal

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The Western diet is rich in highly processed, simple carbohydrates.

White bread, white rice and white pasta are the norm, not the exception, in homes and institutional kitchens alike. The trouble is that these carbohydrates act as cheap fuel. They fill us up, they provide us with energy, but they are highly lacking in the fiber and other nutrients that are essential to a healthy digestive system.

Even when it comes to “high fiber” processed foods, the fiber they contain comes from relatively uniform sources. Many “whole grains” in processed foods are in fact themselves highly processed, leading them to behave more like the refined carbohydrates they were supposed to replace.

In a recent article for the New York Times, food writer Michael Pollan talked to microbiologist Justin Sonnenburg about the Western diet’s reductive tendencies and its influence on the beneficial microbes that inhabit our digestive tracts:

“Fiber is not a single nutrient,” Sonnenburg said, which is why fiber supplements are no magic bullet. “There are hundreds of different polysaccharides” — complex carbohydrates, including fiber — “in plants, and different microbes like to chomp on different ones.”

But how do we introduce a wider variety of fiber sources into our diets? Most dauntingly, how do we get our children to explore these foods in a world that is pushing them toward processed, simple and often addictive alternatives?

Whole grains are central in this effort. And as the quote above suggests, it’s important to explore a diversity of whole grains, along with other plant-based sources of fiber such as fruits, vegetables and legumes too.

Here are a few ideas to help you on your way.

Mix it up

Consider adding whole-grain pasta or rice to your everyday dishes. Mixing whole-grain pasta with white pasta half-and-half can be a great way to introduce picky eaters to the slightly heartier texture and flavor of whole grains, and adding grains to soups or stews can also be an easy introduction for the skeptical. (Pearl barley in soups is a particularly delicious addition.) In fact, keeping about 50 percent of a child’s grain intake as refined grains (i.e. white pasta, bread etc) can actually be beneficial. A 100 percent whole-grain diet can fill children up too easily, meaning they fail to eat other important food groups like protein.

Bake whole

Learn to use whole grains such as whole wheat flour, spelt, rye and oats in baking. Replacing one-third to one-half of white flour with a whole-grain alternative adds considerable amounts of fiber to foods while still maintaining a familiar flavor and texture. You can even try more exotic grains like quinoa in your baking — try these quinoa muffins for example as a healthy, fiber-rich treat.

Choose convenient, but not processed

As mentioned above, there is good reason to be wary of some of the “whole grain” and “high fiber” labeling in processed foods. Nevertheless, many of us still fit convenience foods into our busy lifestyles. Luckily, the food industry is offering an increasingly wide variety of snack foods that contain significant amounts of genuine whole grains. Whether it’s Mary’s Gone Crackers wheat-free crackers made from brown rice, quinoa, flax and sesame seed or Kashi’s breakfast cereals and cereal bars, there are options available when you have to “grab and go.”

Start the day whole

Breakfast is a good time to emphasize whole grains. Many breakfast cereals already contain whole-grain ingredients (keeping in mind, as mentioned above, that some whole grains are more whole than others), and breakfast staples like oatmeal, buckwheat pancakes, or eggs on whole-grain toast can add some variety while still packing a fiber-rich punch. If you want to get more adventurous, why not try something a little different like this pan-seared steel cut oatmeal recipe?

Add a creative side dish

Making a new whole grain the centerpiece of a meal may not be the best way to win over the naysayers. Consider adding interesting and creative side dishes to the meals you would usually make. Quinoa salad with feta and herbs, or a whole-grain couscous with butter, can be great side dishes with burgers or fish. Whole-grain breads served with your soups or stews can also be a gateway drug for a whole-grain habit. (They need something to mop up the gravy, right?)

Ask for whole grains

We aren’t the only ones who cook for our kids. Whether you are eating out, or sending your kids to eat at the school cafeteria, you scan still influence what they eat. Ask your school about its dietary policy, and encourage it to introduce whole grains to the menu. Even when ordering take-out from your local restaurant, be sure to request brown rice or other whole-grain alternatives. You might be surprised how many restaurants now offer whole grains for their health conscious consumers — and even if they don’t, by asking you will be increasing the likelihood that they will in the future. 

Related healthy eating stories on MNN:

5 ways to introduce whole grains into your child's diet
What qualifies as whole grain is different from processed food with 'high fiber' labels. Think assorted grains.