How to Reduce the Amount of Salt in Kids’ Diets (Part 1)
Over the last couple of days I have been looking at the dangers to kids’ health when they eat too much salt. Recommendations for how much salt to consume are actually listing the maximum amount of salt one can safely eat daily, not how much one should eat. And although they can’t seem to agree on the ideal amount of salt kids should consume, scientists and experts all agree that the maximum amount is way too high. So, how can we reduce the amount of salt in our kids’ diet?
Take Salt Off the Table
The first step to reducing salt intake is to reduce the amount of salt kids are eating at home. Many families place salt and pepper on the dinner table and each family member can season their food accordingly. Studies show that kids who add salt at the table have higher systolic blood pressure than those who don’t.* Remove salt from the table and kids won’t add it at the table. This reduces their risk of having high blood pressure. One in every six children has high blood pressure! This increases their risk of suffering heart attack or stroke later in life threefold. Taking salt off the table is a crucial first step to reducing this risk.
Taking salt off the table also teaches children not to add salt to prepared foods even when they are in a situation where it is available. Kids who make it a habit to add salt to food might even develop the habit of adding it without tasting the food previously. Restaurant foods and prepared foods, with their high amounts of sodium, then get extra salt on top of them, making them even less healthy. Kids who add salt to their food at the table also begin to slide down the slippery slope of adding more and more as they become accustomed to the flavor and their taste buds are corrupted. However, kids who do not see a saltshaker on the table at home do not become accustomed to adding salt to their food, nor do they get used to the flavor of salt and need it on everything.
Eat Fresh Foods
Replace processed snack foods with healthy, fresh alternatives. Raw fruits and vegetables are great snacks for kids: portable, and delicious. Instead of sending potato chips as a midmorning snack, send an apple or banana. Make up a fresh fruit salad or blend fruits together to make a smoothie. Using raw fresh fruits is a great way to get your child eating healthier and will also avoid excess salt. Replace salty snacks with unsalted raw or toasted nuts (although this may not work for school, it will work at home!) You may also consider dehydrated or freeze dried fruits and vegetables, as well. Dehydrated fruit like raisins or apricots are commonly available. Freeze dried vegetables like peas or green beans are becoming more widely available, as are freeze dried fruits like strawberry, banana, and mango. Kids will enjoy freeze dried vegetables and fruits as a snack alternative because they are so crunchy and fun to eat. They give the same feeling of eating a crunchy potato chip, but without the oil and salt!
Cook More at Home
Prepared foods are much higher in sodium than foods prepared at home. Processed, packaged foods use salt both for flavor and as a preservative. Restaurants apply salt liberally to enhance the flavor of their foods. Foods cooked at home tend to be much lower in sodium because home chefs add less salt than the commercial versions. For instance, last night I made a vegan bolognese sauce to put over pasta. I did not add any salt to it at all and it tasted great! In processed jars of pasta sauce one serving of sauce might have 300 mg of sodium all the way up to 1,000 mg! 1,000 mg of sodium in one cup of pasta with sauce is a crazy amount – it would mean a home chef adding nearly 1 tablespoon of salt per 1 cup of pasta with sauce. I hope no home cooks do that!
Food cooked at home not only has more salt, but it tends to be healthier overall. Kids who eat home-cooked meals eat more fruits and vegetables, as well as less salt, sugar, and fat. Home-cooked family meals also promote togetherness and good relationships. So cooking at home can really pay off!
Don’t Add Salt to Cooking
Most people add salt to food as they are cooking almost without thinking about it. But salt is not necessary for food to taste good. When you cook at home, you have the power to control flavors. Most foods can use substitutes for salt. Scrambled eggs, for instance, often include salt. But perhaps instead of adding salt, you can add different flavors. Season eggs with lemon and parsley, cumin, coriander, or ground pepper. Seasoning common foods with fresh herbs and ground spices gives those foods a new, exotic, exciting flavor, and makes them seem more fancy. Kids and adults alike will not miss the salt in a well-seasoned dish.
Absolutely do not add salt to food for your baby or infant! Babies’ immature kidneys cannot handle the additional sodium. Always be careful to feed babies homemade food or food specially formulated for infants. Even if the ingredients list looks the same as it does for adult foods, adult food salt contents are higher. Excess salt intake in babies can even be fatal.
If your dish needs some salt, add the tiniest amount possible. A small pinch will usually suffice. Use the healthiest kind of salt out there, so it will include other trace minerals rather than just the sodium and chloride that is in table salt. I use pink Himalayan salt or natural sea salt if I need to season my cooking, and if I do decide to sprinkle my own dish with a bit of salt, I use Maldon sea salt flakes. Choose the highest quality salt you can, preferably a kind with additional nutrients and minerals. It might cost more, but you’ll be using it sparingly enough it should last for a long, long time.
More great tips to come tomorrow! – Read on for How to Reduce the Amount of Salt in Kids’ Diets (Part 2)
*Gregory J, L.S., Bates CJ, Prentice A, Jackson L, Smithers G, Wenlock R, Farron M., National Diet and Nutrition Survey: young people aged 4 to 18 years. Vol. 1: Report of the diet and nutrition survey. 2000, London: The Stationery Office. 271-336.