When I ask most parents to recall what their child eats and drinks from the time they wake until bedtime on a typical day, they usually tell me about meals at home but not what their child is eating at school. Keeping a food diary will help you become aware of and track your child’s eating habits, and take a critical look at whether your child’s routines are perhaps excessive in sugar and dairy.
You can use a simple one-page food "diary" and write out what your child eats and drinks for breakfast, a morning snack (younger children), lunch, in the afternoon or as an after school snack, for dinner, and after dinner snacks right up to bedtime. If you need to use a second page, go ahead but do not combine more than one day on one page. It is especially important to note what time food is eaten, and if you consider it breakfast, lunch, dinner or a snack. Be sure to indicate whether the food contains dairy or sugar.
I encourage you to even go one step further for each item: If you have the package, take a look at how many grams of sugar is in each serving. For example, if a child has an 8oz glass of apple juice, that’s approximately 26 grams of sugar or 6.5 teaspoons of added sugar (the number of grams divided by 4). Learn how to read a nutrition facts label and take a sugar assessment to find out how much sugar your child is drinking.
Food diaries are most accurate when they are completed as meals are eaten or at least recalled at the end of the day. Remember to write down the time your child ate dinner and the time your child went to bed, as well as what time your child may have had that bowl of cereal and milk as they often like to do. If you’re really serious about your child’s wellness, a food diary can be very helpful in exploring the relationship between a child’s diet and symptoms.
Most of us end up feeling pretty uncomfortable, if not downright guilty, about the patterns that emerge from charting our child’s eating lifestyle. The diary may show that we are giving them too much fast food, processed foods like chicken nuggets, too many sweets, too much juice, not enough water, not enough fresh fruits, little to no cooked vegetables, not enough exercise, and lots of late-night eating. We filter all that through the reality-check of our lifestyles and end up wringing our hands over what to do about the situation. Should we pull our kid out of soccer and all other sporting practices in favor of a homemade sit-down meal before 6:00pm or 6:30pm (that we don’t have time to make anyway)?
I am committed to having conversations with families so that they feel informed and empowered to create changes to current eating habits, without judgment, guilt, or feeling inadequate. Everyone works hard and parents are doing their best given their circumstances. The key is to believe and think differently so that our “best” is aligned with our goal to raise healthy kids who don't get "sick" often and won’t need to go to doctor. I tell parents this is not about some perfect diet or perfect grocery list, but truly a journey into health and well-being that allows all of us to live our best life.
Whatever you do today and as you plan for tomorrow, grocery shopping, meal planning, and cooking are all based on your family's situation, schedules and your children’s activities. As a working mother, I always strive to provide practical suggestions that are achievable, even if parents don’t think it’s possible. By helping parents identify if their child may be at risk for the “Milk and Cookie Disease” (MCD), I simply raise awareness. Parents can decide if they are willing to try my suggestions to see for themselves whether their child seems healthier as a result. Curing MCD is thankfully SO MUCH EASIER than curing diseases!
Here are examples of questions I ask parents about my patients during office visits:
- Breakfast (food and drink):
- Morning snack (food and drink):
- Lunch (food and drink):
- Afternoon/after school snack (food and drink):
- Dinner (food and drink):
- Dinner time: ____ pm
- Food/snacks after dinner and before bed (food and drink):
- Bedtime: ____ pm
I often ask parents what I would find in the pantry or fridge for snacks for preschoolers, and this will lead to a recall of items that may not be realized during the questions above: yogurt smoothies, yogurt tubes, fruit snacks and fruit gummies, pudding cups, apple sauce in containers, pop-tarts, little mini-muffins, etc. All items are incredibly high in sugar, barely if any fiber, and highly processed. See A Healthier Wei and Acid Reflux In Children for snack ideas.
Download a printable version of a daily food diary.