The Chicken Nugget Syndrome

My oldest son eats chicken nuggets almost every day. Gasp! It’s true. Recently, I’ve transitioned from frozen nuggets to making homemade nuggets with vegetables ground into the breading. I held my breath when serving them to my son, but he ate them right up. He also loves French fries. Instead of making the frozen fries from the freezer section, I made homemade sweet potato fries. My boys loved that the fries were orange. I loved that they were eating a healthier version of one of their favorite meals. Healthy eating is a process. Change will come and the impact on health is immeasurable. It might just take a little more time in the kitchen.

Mary Beth McCue, a Saratoga Springs-based clinical nutritionist and registered dietitian with over 25 years of experience with integrative, functional, and lifestyle medicine, understands today’s food culture. The processed foods kids are eating is what they like, but that doesn’t mean kids can’t be weaned off these foods to become healthy eaters. “The conventional food stores are filled with sugar, processed foods and GMO foods, which means the foods are loaded with pesticides, toxins and chemicals,” she said. “The medical science proves that health imbalance is from toxins, stress and/or nutritional deficiencies.  This science has been translated to me in my professional trainings for at least twenty years. The body can rebalance and it does when a healthy lifestyle is more developed.”

“What in life is more important than how we fuel our lives? No matter how good everything else is going in your life, from work to relationships, if you are not feeling well you are not enjoying your best life. It’s about changing priorities,” McCue said. She says people can’t be on auto pilot when it comes to food, and taking care of our bodies.  “We only get one body. Food is critical to overall health.  Every cell, every action in the body is driven by a nutritional substance. When we enhance the food choices, our cells shift at a gene level. Food and nutrition are significant,” she said. “Healthy eating is the foundation to happy, healthy families. The key is to look at healthy food as being expansive to your diet – AND LIFE – and not as a restriction to it. Innately people know this but they are confused and driven by cultural messages.  My services help people simplify and clarify this,” she said.

McCue has centered her work on the whole person. She assists clients to discover their unique health state revealed in layers of symptoms, mixed messaging and incorrect advice. “I see all ages with chronic conditions, claiming modern medicine is failing them. I have worked with 80 year olds that have resolved problems in two months that have been affecting them for three decades. Three decades of seeing specialists. They simply gave the body what it needs based on their unique conditions, needs, and goals,” she said. “People at every stage of their life are dealing with the impacts of food on their bodies. It all starts with learning good habits in childhood.” For decades McCue has witnessed the healing power of the body. “The world is not going to change, processed foods will always be available, but we can change our choices,” she said. McCue has and continues to work and train with cutting edge practitioners from the Integrative and Functional Nutrition Academy, Institute for Functional Medicine, and the famous Mind-Body-Medicine Center.

McCue doesn’t recommend removing favorite foods from the everyday diet, especially while working with children to create change. Instead introduce healthy foods into meals. For instance, a healthier cookie recipe might use honey as a sweetener instead of sugar. Replacing wheat flour with almond flour, using less processed foods like mixes, and adding more whole foods such as coconut oil, flax meal, nuts and seeds. McCue suggests smashing up fruits, using pumpkin, applesauce and zucchini in recipes. “It has more nutritional value and is a good source of fiber, and is more satisfying,” she said. McCue remembers implementing vegetables into her own diet. “Mix vegetables into anything – soups, casseroles, pasta, stews. It won’t happen overnight, but eventually the body will stop craving sugar and start craving the good stuff,” she said.

McCue highly recommends making a trip to the farmer’s market a family activity. Vegetables available for purchase from the farmer’s market have been picked at the peak of ripeness, which is the highest nutritional value stage. People are missing out on eating nutrients that their bodies desperately need.  “At the farmer’s market families become immersed in the regional food market,” she said. She warns: be careful of conventional stores that have organic vegetables picked too soon, meaning there is no longer any nutritional value in consumption. McCue says that buying fruits and vegetables from a cooperative or farmer’s market is well worth the money, which in the long run is not much different in price than buying from conventional stores. “Feeling healthy is priceless. Plus, it gives families an opportunity to get to know farmers in the region,” she said. She suggests taking on one or two menu changes at a time. For instance, replace wheat pasta with spaghetti squash. “Eating rice or legume pasta, for example, means there will be less inflammation in our bodies. Less inflammation = HEALTH. Healthy and happy families are a lifestyle,” she said.

So what are some realistic things parents can do? It starts with the parents. Get the family involved in the process. “Let them choose the recipe for dinner or pick out the vegetables for a meal,” she said. “The biggest disconnect for kids is not seeing what is going on in the kitchen. They don’t know where the food comes from or how it is prepared. Let kids get involved. Show them the recipe. Make it fun and the change to healthy won’t be a turn off for kids, but a fun activity.” She recommends making a trip to one of the areas local educational farms, such as Pitney Meadows Community Farm in Saratoga Springs.

I put her advice to the test. I decided to make banana muffins from scratch. My boys were surprisingly excited to help make the muffins when I asked them. We rolled up our shirt sleeves and got to work. My oldest son peeled the bananas while my youngest mushed them in a bowl with his hands, rather than the big wooden spoon I provided him. We transferred the ingredients to the mixer and they took turns making the batter smooth. I put the muffin pan filled to the brim with the banana muffin mixture into the oven. We waited. My boys sat on the kitchen floor with their legs crossed and heads propped in their hands. “Is it ready now?” my youngest wondered out loud. When the oven dinged indicating the muffins readiness the boys were excited to witness their creation. It was worth the wait. They were so happy to share the muffins they made with me and my husband. For the next two days they proceeded to tell everyone they met, including the sales woman at Target, that they had made yummy muffins with mommy. The takeaway from this is that if I can make muffins with my sons, I can make other things, too. It is about ownership in what they are eating. Would they have eaten the muffins if I had made them myself? Maybe…slim. But, they made the muffins. They were proud of themselves. And they should be proud. Those muffins were tasty. I am also thinking that if they ate banana muffins, what other healthy foods can we put into a muffin? Nuts, smashed fruits like berries, flax seed, even black beans. Zucchini brownies, anyone?!

Healthy eating habits stem from the parents and trickle down to the kids. “It all needs to start with the parents making conscious decisions when purchasing and preparing food,” McCue said. “My best advice is for parents to take care of themselves first. Know your own body and trust your intuition.” It seems simple because it is simple. “As you all adapt to healthier foods everyone will feel better. Food is the root of it all, from health, to behavior, to sleep.”

Mary Beth McCue is a Dietitian in Integrative and Functional Medicine, a Certified Clinical Functional Nutritionist, and is trained in meditation and reiki. She sees clients at the ECS Psychological Services Therapy Farm in Saratoga Springs, NY, where she accepts both cash and insurance-covered clients.  For more information on McCue and her practice please visit her website:

Photo courtesy of Mary Beth McCue.

Emily Marcason-Tolmie, a Saratoga native, is a writer, researcher, wife and mother. Emily and her husband, Ryan, are the parents to two wonderful little boys, ages 4 and 1.

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