By Amanda N. Wegner
With the first day of school just around the corner, it’s time to start getting back into the swing of things: earlier mornings, homework and set bedtimes. But the fall and the new school year also bring a slew of extra activities and commitments for parents and children alike and too often, good nutrition gets lost in the rush.
Start the new school year off on the right foot by refreshing your nutrition knowledge with plenty of tips from our doctors on how to make sure your children are getting healthy meals and snacks.
IT STARTS WITH YOU
It’s no secret that most children, given the choice between pizza and a pear or carrots and cake, will choose the less healthy option. And while most adults would choose the same, helping children make good nutritional choices starts with being a good role model.
“Learning starts at home and children learn from what you do,” says Dr. Stephen A. Cole, a family medicine physician at Aurora Health Center in Walworth. “They are more likely to learn better food habits when they see you doing the same thing!”
Dr. Lynn Kohlmeier, pediatrician at Mercy Walworth Hospital and Medical Center, echoes Cole. “Remember to model good eating habits. Children are not going to eat their vegetables if you don’t!”
It’s also important to involve children in food choices; not only does this allow them to make choices about what they eat, it provides an opportunity for you to educate them about smart food choices. “Make your child part of the decision-making process. This helps them to learn how to choose healthier foods and why some choices are good and some are not. It also helps to foster a sense of ownership of healthy eating that will stay with them well beyond their childhood,” says Cole.
In addition to setting the menu, involve children in age-appropriate food preparation activities and eat together as a family, says Kohlmeier. Younger children can help set the table, and older children can help rinse vegetables, make salads and more. Also, offer children foods they don’t normally eat (and eat try them yourself!), but be patient. “Children may need to be offered a new food many times before they may be willing to eat it,” she says.
Finally, it’s not food-related, but encourage your kids to engage in regular physical activity outside of school, says Cole. “Don’t count on school PE programs to provide all of the physical activity that a growing child needs, as these classes do not meet every school day.”
REMEMBER, THEY AREN’T US
With all-you-can-eat buffets, big gulps and king-sized packages, it’s hard for adults to know what a healthy and appropriate serving size is. What’s even more difficult is that many foods today have added unnecessary ingredients that add fat and calories that many of us don’t need. In fact, according to New York Department of Health, a bagel of the 1980s was just 140 calories; today, they’ve ballooned to 350 calories.
Unfortunately, children also suffer from “portion distortion.” “In general, most school-aged children drink way too many sweetened beverages, consume more fat than they should, and do not consume enough fiber, whole grains and water,” says Kohlmeier.
While many of us grew up with the federal government’s food pyramid that offered serving sizes and suggestions, it is being phased out by the new “Choose My Plate” guide. This set of nutrition guidelines emphasizes filling half the plate with fruits and vegetables; while ensuring the other half is comprised of grain and protein. Even with that guidance, parents need to bear in mind that daily portions are based on age and gender.
For instance, the United States Department of Agriculture recommends that children ages 2 and 3 eat one cup of fruit, while children ages 4 to 8 eat one to one and one-half cups of fruits. For children ages 14 to 18, the USDA recommendation for boys is two cups of fruit, while it’s one and one-half for girls of the same age. To find more information on daily portion recommendations, visit choosemyplate.gov.
Also, says Cole, become a label reader “and watch the amount of sugar and fat in your child’s food. Also note that the label information is per serving size and that the suggested serving size is often smaller than what we think!”
It’s also important to remember that beverages count in the daily recommended servings as well, and many often contain extra sugar and unnecessary calories. “Limiting sweetened beverages — soda, Kool-Aid, Hi-C, Sunny D and even lots of 100 percent juices — is very important,” says Kohlmeier. “Only offer 100 percent juice and limit to eight ounces per day for older children or four ounces per day for toddlers.”
Similarly, a common misconception that Cole hears is that sports drinks are good for kids. “These are fine for hydration and electrolyte replacement for active children, but not so much for just a regular drink,” he says. “They tend to have a higher amount of sugar than other beverages, which can lead to obesity and other related health concerns.” For children who will not drink plain water, says Kohlmeier, parents can buy flavored water or use water flavor enhancers.
MAXIMIZING HEALTHY LUNCH CHOICES
When it comes to packing school lunches, Drs. Cole and Kohlmeier offer the following tips:
- Include as many food groups as possible and try to balance the meal by providing more of what will help keep your child’s belly full: more protein, less fat and sugar.
- Good sources of protein like nuts, yogurt, hummus and edamame help with brain development and keep your child focused on learning, says Cole.
- Involve your children with the food choices.
- Try to include whole fruits such as apples versus applesauce or fruit cocktail for increased fiber.
- Some children may be more willing to eat the fruits and vegetables if they can dip them in something, such as ranch dressing for veggies or peanut butter for celery, carrot or apple slices.
- Make packing lunches go faster by pre-cleaning and pre-packaging vegetables such as baby carrots, and fruits, so you just have to grab a pack and place it in the lunch box.
- Make lunch fun by including little notes to your younger, school-aged children, or cutting their sandwiches into fun shapes.
- Use wholegrain bread or crackers.
For lunch during the school year, a packed lunch from home is always a smart option, but there will always be times when school lunch is the preferred — or necessary — option. To help ensure your child gets a good, healthy midday meal, “review the school lunch menu with your child to make sure that they are going to eat the entree served,” says Kohlmeier. “If there are multiple choices, encourage them to select a healthy side, such as fruit or a salad versus french fries.”