You have to use a lot of imagination to classify a bagel and cream cheese as healthy.

But that’s what we’re teaching our kids.  (I wish I had a dime for every time a child was made to finish her bagel and cream cheese before she could have dessert. I would be rich!)

A bagel with cream cheese — basically a blob of refined flour coated in fat — may be a tasty way to start the day, but did you know that …

  • The typical bagel is equivalent to 4 slices of Wonder White Bread?
  • Cream cheese is 80% (or more, depending on the brand) pure fat, most of it saturated?
  • Cream cheese contains so little calcium that the USDA doesn’t consider cream cheese to be part of the milk group?

If you top your kid’s bagel with cream cheese thinking it’s healthy, you would be better off piling on the pudding instead.

Compared to Philadelphia Cream Cheese, each 2-ounce serving of Kozy Shack Chocolate Pudding has …

  • Fewer calories (70 vs. 200)
  • Less sodium (70mg vs. 210mg)
  • Less fat (1.8g vs. 18g)
  • More calcium (5% vs. 4%)

I admit that the pudding does have more sugar than the cream cheese (9.5g vs. 2g), but the additional 7.5 grams isn’t much.  In fact, we routinely accept this kind of a trade-off: chocolate milk has 12-15 grams of added sugar; a serving of Honey Nut Cheerios supplies 9 grams.  Read The (Chocolate) Milk Mistake.

And, yes, the pudding does have half the protein, but the 4 grams delivered by the cream cheese is nothing to write home about.  Give your kids the pudding instead of the cream cheese and you can make up the 2-gram deficit with…

  • A serving of Goldfish crackers (4g).
  • One slice of Wonder Bread Classic White Bread (2g).
  • Half a Reese’s Peanut Butter Big Cup (2.5g). (In fact, maybe you should consider putting the Peanut Butter Cup on the bagel.  If you can cope with the sugar, you’ll get slightly less calcium from the peanut butter cup than from the cream cheese, but you’ll also get fewer calories, less sodium, less fat and more protein.)

Better yet, give your kids an egg. It has 6 grams of protein.

And, if teaching your kids to eat the healthier part of the meal first is your goal, a lot of times you would be better off having them dig into dessert.

For instance, compared to a typical bagel with cream cheese (which has about 480 calories and 20 grams of fat), one slice of Entenmann’s Chocolate Fudge Cake is a bargain: it has 200 fewer calories, and about half the fat.  The cake even has the same amount of fiber!

True, the chocolate cake has less protein and more sugar than the bagel and cream cheese, but it has roughly the same amount of protein and more calcium than the cream cheese. (Maybe your kids should eat the cake on the bagel!)

Of course, I don’t really think you should serve pudding, cake, or peanut butter cups on a bagel, because that would teach the wrong lesson. My point is…

It’s not about nutrition, it is all about the effect of regularly eating bagels and cream cheese on your children’s lifelong eating habits.

Somehow, a bagel with cream cheese has become a staple of the toddler diet.  It’s right up there with macaroni and cheese, chicken nuggets, juice and all the other “dangerous” foods — foods that won’t kill your kids in the sense that they’re poisonous , but items that are dangerous in the sense that they poison your children’s eating habits.

Here’s what we know:

  1. Lifelong eating habits are established in childhood.
  2. A diet high in saturated fat is one of the leading causes of heart disease
  3. Conditions leading to heart disease now start in childhood.
  4. High fat food condition people to overeat because fat has what are called reinforcing qualities: pleasurable traits that keep us coming back for more.

If you teach kids that bagels are the healthy choice, why should they eat their veggies?

The veggies don’t have anything in common with a bagel and cream cheese. There’s nothing you can do to peas to give them the crunchy, the chewy, the creamy — in other words, the palatability — of a bagel with cream cheese.  So don’t train your kids’ taste buds in that direction.

Plus, kids who get used to “healthy” bagel eating, think they’ve got the healthy thing covered.

Teach your kids to use bagels and cream cheese right: as a wonderful, delicious, decadent treat. (You know how I feel about bread! Read Manna from Heaven.)

~ Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits. ~ 


Sources: All product websites accessed 10/19/10; Gidding, Samuel S., Barbara A. Dennison, Leann L. Birch, Stephen R. Daniels, et. al. 2005. “Dietary recommendations for children and adolescents. A guide for practitioners. Consensus statement from the American Heart Association.  Endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics.” Circulation. 112:2061-2075.  Read a copy of this article; Kessler, D. A., MD, 2009. The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite. New York, NY: Rodale.