Needing to kill time on a Thursday night in Brandon, I wandered into something called the "All Kids Green Market." Didn't make much sense to me either. But the event, at All Children's Specialty Care, was billed as a lesson in saving money while buying healthier food.
I don't want to insult my children, who, after all, grew up at my table. But good advice is always welcome. And who wouldn't want to save money?
So I got ready to hear about shopping the outer aisles of the supermarket from some health freak with a condescending attitude.
First of all, nutritionist Melanie Newkirk looks like someone who would join you for a pizza. She has real kids who wander off to Smoothie King and call her from Cold Stone Creamery. She's as much about psychology as science.
"There are no bad foods. There are only bad amounts," she told us. Straight out of Weight Watchers, right?
The obesity epidemic, which places kids at risk for diabetes, heart disease and several kinds of cancer, makes it impossible not to pay attention. Busy parents cannot just wing it.
"To eat well, it takes a lot of planning," she said. "You have to have food in the refrigerator."
Ah, but look what happens to that food, especially the good stuff.
To avoid wasting vegetables, she suggested shopping at produce stands for, say, one zucchini instead of half a dozen. Time pressed? She likes frozen vegetables. They're cheap, easy and almost as nutritious as fresh ones.
Most of the advice was old school: Plan a week of menus, make a list and shop without your kids if you can't say no to them. "When you have a lot of those extra trips to the store, that's when you have a lot of impulse buying," she said.
We spent much of the evening troubleshooting while the children did some cooking in the other room.
Talk of the kinds of trouble varied, from food allergies to sneak eating.
For the child who will eat only Fruit Loops in the morning, she suggested mixing those Fruit Loops with bran flakes.
For fussy eaters, Newkirk suggested offering new dishes and then just sitting back and waiting. "When you expose kids to different kinds of foods, they will come around and eat it," she said. Involving kids in menu planning and preparation is a great way to get their buy-in.
"Don't tell your child something is bad, and then give it to them," she advised. Rather than bad-mouthing McDonald's on the way to the drive-through, remind your kids of the importance of moderation.
The key, especially for older children, is information. Rather than ordering your teen away from Smoothie King (as if you could), make sure she knows she's slurping down 800 calories, or whatever number pops up when you research it online.
"Once they become aware, they will make better choices," she said.
We became aware, for example, that a bottle of fruit punch, purporting to have real fruit juice, was only 3 percent juice and contained no vitamin C. The high-fructose corn syrup packed 300 calories and 70 grams of sugar, about as much as 14 restaurant sugar packets.
Looking over the charts and worksheets and food pyramids, I kind of wished I had paid attention to nutrition earlier in the game, when my kids might get excited about "eating around the rainbow" (code for consuming a variety of fruits and vegetables).
But it's never too late to do something. Nor is it too early to worry about adult-like eating disorders.
"Kids eat for stress," Newkirk said. "People eat for comfort. It's a social thing. That happens, and it happens to kids. There's a lot of pressure on our kids now and I think they react to that by eating."
"I don't have a problem if kids eat when they're hungry,'' she said, "but a lot of kids mistake boredom for hunger and stress for hunger."
We did finally get around to the saving money part, and she had a few helpful suggestions.
My mother-in-law already does this first one: "Plan meals where you can use an item more than once."
For example, Monday's leftover roast chicken becomes Tuesday's soup.
Here's one I should have thought of: Take a notebook to the grocery store to record prices, for comparison later.
And if you see a good price on a particular kind of meat one week, revise your menu accordingly.
Newkirk recommended we try the off-brand Aldi stores, and be wary of large-quantity deals at warehouse stores. "Cheese might be really cheap, but if you go and eat three times as much cheese, it's really not worth it."
Shop with cash, she said. Carry a calculator.
And, for that 60 percent of us, or whatever it is, who are packing on too many pounds: Eat a little less, which will also save money.
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 269-5307 or email@example.com.