September brings the start of the school year for many families. If you are a parent or caregiver, you’ve likely tackled the back-to-school list: new back pack, school supplies, a lunch box…but how about what goes in that lunch box? Healthy eating is essential for children’s growth and development, but did you know it is also tied to their higher academic success, well-being, and self-esteem? I’m Jessie Groth, a Registered Dietitian with ISS Guckenheimer, and today on Health Hacks, we’re hacking Back-to-School Fuel.
The latest snapshot from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey shows that many children aged 2-11 consume inadequate amounts of calcium, vitamin D, potassium, and fiber. The USDA developed MyPlate as a visual reference for building a balanced meal to help adults and children get enough of these nutrients. When packing your child’s lunch, start with a fruit, add 1-2 vegetables, a healthy protein and a whole grain. What can this look like? A small banana, cucumber wedges with hummus, and a turkey and mustard sandwich on 12-grain bread. Unflavored milk or soy milk, Greek yogurt, or string cheese can also be incorporated to provide calcium and vitamin D.
If you’re not packing lunch, food provided by the school is also a great option due to stronger standards introduced by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act passed in 2010. This act increased the availability of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables and made selecting a fruit or veggie a requirement, while also setting grade-specific limits on total calories and sodium. Involve your child when choosing school lunch offerings, and, after school, ask what foods they ate and didn’t eat and why. This can help to plan their future meals and snacks.
Are you blessed with a picky eater? Start with ensuring your kids have a good role model – you! Research shows that your own eating behaviors affect your children’s. In a study of 564 parents and caregivers, parental consumption and early introduction to fruit and vegetables were associated with higher intake of both. And while we’re on the topic of introducing new foods, stay patient! Research shows that most caregivers offer a new food to a child only 3-5 times before giving up and concluding the child simply doesn’t like it. However, the same research indicated that in fact it takes 8-15 exposures to successfully foster the acceptance of a new food. Presenting the food in fun, creative ways will encourage kids to eat a greater variety. Create kabobs with fruits, veggies or protein, pack Bento boxes with several small divided containers, or cut sandwiches and produce into fun shapes with cookie cutters.
Whether they are picky or not, get your children involved! Allow young ones to choose their own “parent-approved” snacks, or the produce when grocery shopping. Make learning about food enjoyable by associating it with something good it does in the body or what it looks like – rename blueberries “Brain Berries” or Broccoli “Baby Trees”!
Have a teenager? Teens may be open to eating healthy if they are involved in the decision-making and preparation of meals. Provide them with a healthy cookbook and allow them to decide what’s on the menu – having them “own” preparing the meal will foster a sense of achievement and pride!
But wait a minute, meals outside of school are just as important. Research shows that when kids shared at least 3 mealtimes a week with family, they were 25% more likely to eat healthier foods and 35% less likely to engage in disordered eating. They are also more likely to get better grades, make better life decisions around peer relationships and drug use, and report having an excellent relationship with their parents and siblings. If dinner is a challenge at times during the school week due to mom’s late conference call or Susie’s soccer practice, don’t rule out a breakfast, a picnic, or a face-to-face conversation at a healthier fast-casual restaurant – in one study, 71% of surveyed teens said they consider catching up and spending time with family members as the best part of family mealtime.
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