I would like to start this commentary by assuring you that I really am a fun parent. I’m not a germaphobe despite the fact that I majored in cellular molecular biology, I don’t wrap my children in bubble wrap or tell them not to run for fear that they’ll get hurt and their bedroom walls are not padded despite my ongoing commitment to injury prevention.

Okay, so now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, I’ll also tell you that my husband is convinced that all of you who read my column are going to start thinking of me as Debbie Downer if I keep writing about all of the dangers of childhood – a concern I fully understand. The problem is that I just can’t help it. Not when I know that unintentional injuries have long been and continue to be the leading cause of death for children under the age of fourteen, and that there’s a lot that we, as parents, can do to prevent these injuries from happening.

While I could take my pick of summertime safety topics to write about (and probably will over the upcoming weeks, since there’s no shortage of them), right now I think it’s well worth the time to focus on the fact that there’s going to be a whole lot of fireworks on the horizon in the not too distant future. In fact, in my west Omaha neighborhood, they’re already a nightly event.

Each year, without fail, I cringe at the thought of the potential dangers of fireworks. And just saying that makes me sound like my mother. As a kid, I admit I had a very hard time listening to my pediatrician mother explain the dangers of fireworks. And not just the “dangerous” kind, but essentially all of the fireworks that every other neighborhood child got to light and enjoy in peace without hearing about how many people lose eyes and limbs to fireworks. Back then, my siblings and I weren’t allowed to light anything but sparklers.

Knowing what I know now, even sparklers concern me. Of course, saying that alone makes me a bit of a social outcast, given that most families I know are out buying hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars worth of fireworks that they fully intend to fire off together in the front driveway. Now that non-profits are allowed to sell them right here in Nebraska, I can only imagine how many more amateur fireworks we stand to witness in the next few days and weeks. I only hope this increased availability doesn’t translate into an increase in fireworks related injuries.

For my part, I figured it might help if I shared a couple of commonly used expressions that I think are particularly relevant to the Fourth of July weekend celebrations. It is my sincere hope that they will give you pause, and then set you up to enjoy a fun-filled and safer family holiday weekend.

It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye…and people actually do. According to my mother, it was the experience of being on call on the Fourth of July in the pediatric emergency room in Boston and seeing a child brought in who had been blinded by an exploding firework that shaped her future opinions of them. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, somewhere on the order of seven to nine thousand people a year are treated in hospital emergency rooms for fireworks-related injuries.

You’re playing with fire….literally. While you’d like to think that this would be obvious – akin to letting children stick their hands in the oven, for example – this particular burn risk seems to be lost on some otherwise safety-minded parents as soon as their children start begging to go out and join the fun of lighting explosives. And if you think I’m just talking about the more obviously dangerous explosive kinds of fireworks, consider the fact that even good old, presumably benign sparklers burn at temperatures of about 2000 degrees and are responsible for an estimated one third of fireworks-related injuries to children under age 5.

You’re throwing caution to the wind – definitely in a figurative sense, but also in a very literal sense. It makes absolutely no sense to me that one of the most well-accepted rituals involved in celebrating our country’s independence is the liberation of lit explosives into the wind in the hopes that they entertain rather than fall on a neighbors roof, tree, or other highly flammable objects.

And finally, knowing full well that there will still be lots of families lighting lots of fireworks in the upcoming days, I’ll leave you with some important fireworks safety tips from the Consumer Product Safety Commission:

  • Never allow young children to play with or ignite fireworks.
  • Avoid buying fireworks that are packaged in brown paper because this is often a sign that the fireworks were made for professional displays and that they could pose a danger to consumers.
  • Always have an adult supervise fireworks activities. Parents don’t realize that young children suffer injuries from from sparklers, [which are] hot enough to melt some metals.
  • Never place any part of your body directly over a fireworks device when lighting the fuse. Back up to a safe distance immediately after lighting fireworks.
  • Never try to re-light or pick up fireworks that have not ignited fully.
  • Never point or throw fireworks at another person.
  • Keep a bucket of water or a garden hose handy in case of fire or other mishap.
  • Light fireworks one at a time, then move back quickly.
  • Never carry fireworks in a pocket or shoot them off in metal or glass containers.
  • After fireworks complete their burning, douse the spent device with plenty of water from a bucket or hose before discarding it to prevent a trash fire.

Originally posted on Omaha World Herald’s Live Well Nebraska

From Pyramid to Plate – What Parents Need to Know about Healthy Eating

If you didn’t catch last week’s long awaited reveal, you missed some big news….at least in the world of obesity prevention and healthy living. That’s because as of last week, it’s now out with the Food Pyramid and in with a fresh new USDA MyPlate. This fresh-faced picture of nutritional health comes in the form of a simplified icon illustrating what we all should be eating: fruits and vegetables filling half the plate, with the other half dedicated to grains (preferably whole) and protein. Ever since the plate’s big reveal, I’ve heard the question of whether this noble effort will make a difference in our big-picture fight against obesity.

In order to answer this question, we should first address the fact that just about everyone – parents and professionals alike – found the Food Pyramid (and it’s many pyramid permutations) more than a bit perplexing. Sure, in all of our heart of hearts we already know that we should be eating lots more fruits and vegetables interspersed with some whole grains and lean protein. But there’s no denying that a picture speaks a thousand words. Given that the recently retired pyramid icon typically required nearly that many words of explanation, the overall lack of understanding posed a pretty big problem. In other words, I hope the fact that we now have something far more visually appealing in MyPlate will make the nutritional message it serves much easier to digest.

That said, there’s a very big difference between knowing what we should be doing (or in this case, eating) and what we actually do or eat. When it comes to MyPlate, we therefore need to make sure to look beyond the colorful picture and commit to taking a closer look at other plate-related problems that are negatively contributing to our nutritional state of well-being.

This includes acknowledging the fact that far too many meals are eaten without even using a plate! Recent studies support the disturbing statistic that children get more than a quarter of their daily calories from snacking. And what they snack on is typically high-density, unhealthy foods. For anyone not up-to-speed on the terminology of poor nutrition, this translates into Cheetos and Big Gulps. Now before you shake your head in dietary disgust and then decide this doesn’t apply to you, I’m willing to bet that the eating and snacking habits of most adults aren’t much better. That applies not only to snacking, but to the huge number of Americans who consume fast food meals so often that they get by without plates altogether.

Although there are a few scattered efforts in the fast food industry to offer an healthier item or two on the menu, when we’re talking fast food, we’re almost always talking about the likes of French fries and bacon double cheeseburgers. When it comes to the problem of snacking and fast food alike, I think that even just requiring the use of a plate, and making it a rule that your children (and you) have to sit down to eat off of it could improve the situation. Combine that with a sincere effort to meet the new MyPlate recommendations and you’ll find that there’s absolutely no place on the plate for most fast food fare (or Cheetos).

Moving on to another super-sized plate problem, it’s worth pointing out that our eyes are not the only things that tend to be bigger than our stomachs. For those who do a good job of making a point to use a plate, you’ll want to be aware that there have been some pretty big changes made to plates over recent years….as in they’ve gotten bigger and bigger (right along with everything from soda bottles and bagels to mugs and bowls). And whether you believe it or not, studies show that the bigger the serving dish, the bigger the serving is likely to be. And the more we heap on our plates, the more likely we are to overeat. My suggestion? Try eating off a smaller plate, or at least resist the urge to fill it.

And finally, lets get to the substance at hand. What I really like about the new plate illustration is that it makes it much easier to compare it to one’s own plate full of food and in most cases, recognize the distinct lack of fruits and vegetables. It also has the added benefit of opening up new dietary possibilities. In my experience, most people seem to have quite a few preconceived notions about what’s appropriate to eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I’m willing to bet that even those who eat the recommended proportions of fruits, vegetables, grains and protein at dinner (and maybe even lunch) may not have previously consider serving up this balanced approach at breakfast.

So there you have it – a more detailed look at the implications of a plate than I ever thought I’d write, but one that I am convinced is well worth it. Both for your sake, and for your children’s, I hope all of you will give MyPlate the consideration it deserves. Whether you choose to plant a garden, take a trip to one of Omaha’s many farmer’s markets or spend more time in your local grocery store’s produce department, please don’t forget to consider that not everyone is fortunate to have access to affordable and readily available fresh fruits and vegetables (or whole grains or lean protein, for that matter).

If you’re interested in looking beyond your own family’s plate, consider checking out the Omaha Food Bank’s program that makes use of a produce truck (that looks convincingly like an ice cream truck) to deliver fresh produce to parts of Omaha with the greatest need. I’m sure they won’t mind me suggesting you call them up if you have produce to share or financial support to help further their worthwhile work.

Originally posted on Omaha World Herald’s Live Well Nebraska