School is back in session and homework, studying and after-school activities take over schedules. But don’t let healthy eating fall by the wayside. While it’s important for everyone to make smart food choices, parents and kids often need some extra support. With these useful tips, having a healthy, happy school year can be a breeze!
Stock a Healthy Pantry
Step one is to have the affordable, healthy ingredients on hand. In addition to fresh produce, having items such as whole grains, beans, nuts, dried fruit, and frozen fruits and vegetables make it easy to prepare quick, delicious meals for your family. You’ll only need to shop for some of them two or three times a month, depending on the number of family members. Then, once or twice a week, shop for perishable basics (fruits, vegetables, whole-grain breads, flatbreads and tortillas, and lean meat and seafood).
Break for Breakfast
Skipping breakfast — how bad can it be, really? Pretty bad. It turns out that skipping breakfast can make you gain weight because you snack more and eat larger meals later in the day. And that muffin on the way out the door doesn’t count as breakfast. We’re talking a real breakfast, with proteins and carbs that will stick to your ribs until lunch or later. The ideal breakfast should have lots of fiber and whole grains, some protein and good fat, and as little added sugar as possible. Choose colorful fruits, oatmeal, whole-grain pancakes, steamed greens, and even breakfast burritos.
Taste the Rainbow
A colorful plate full of natural purples, blues, reds, oranges, yellows and greens will nourish young bodies with the positive effects of phytonutrients, such as flavonoids, carotenoids and chlorophyll — all important for proper nutrition. Choose brightly colored fruits and vegetables, such as mangos, carrots, apricots, citrus fruits, plums, blueberries, eggplant, grapes, watermelon, raspberries, beets, salad greens, green beans, winter squash, pumpkin and dark leafy greens.
Toss Out Trans Fat
Avoid snacks and desserts with hydrogenated fats, which are added to many processed foods aimed at kids. The hydrogenation process transforms vegetable oils from their natural liquid state into solid fats. The result is a fat with a chemical configuration that is not found in nature and rich in trans fatty acids.
Studies have shown that trans fatty acids raise LDL (bad) cholesterol levels while at the same time decreasing HDL (good) cholesterol levels, increasing the risk of coronary heart disease. Trans fatty acids have an even worse impact on cholesterol levels than diets high in butter.
Higher intake of refined sugar has been implicated in many health problems, from obesity to diabetes to dental decay. Eating excessive amounts of nutrient-poor, sugar-rich foods can diminish the appetite for more nutritious foods. But that doesn’t mean you have to cut out all the fun stuff!
Trade refined sweets for delicious, more wholesome options that are high in nutrients but lower in sugar. Provide plenty of fresh, seasonal fruits or dried fruits. Use unsweetened applesauce, apple butter and granola as toppings. For a fruity soft drink alternative, dilute 100% fruit juices with carbonated mineral water.
Make Lunch Fun, Healthy
A kid-friendly lunch doesn’t have to mean a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Not only can dishes such as fruit kabobs, pizza quesadillas and noodle bowls be just as easy to make as a sandwich, you may be surprised to discover how popular and kid friendly such healthy choices are.
To give kids a sense of control and a vested interest in eating their lunches, involve them in the prep work and the decision making process about what goes in the bag. Do this on the weekend or the night before to avoid morning meltdowns.
Give kids something they can assemble themselves. They love dipping, stacking and rolling up their food into fun treats. For kids, mini equals fun. Serve mini-whole-grain bagels, potstickers or cheese cubes. Make food into fun shapes. Colorful or interestingly shaped pasta, sandwiches cut into shapes with cookie cutters or fruit cut into shapes. Try to expose your children to at least one new flavor each week. This could be an item they’ve never eaten before or one they haven’t had in a while. Don’t forget to include a fun container, special note, napkin, cartoon or joke in the lunch box.
For energetic, on-the-move kids, snacks are just as important as meals. They provide another opportunity to pack nutrition into a child’s day, and they help maintain a child’s seemingly endless desire and energy to explore their world. Whenever possible, substitute a whole food option — fresh veggies, fruits, nuts and seeds — for conventional, packaged foods.
One thing that differentiates snacks from meals is that they should be easy and quick. Pack your pantry and fridge with the following foods so kids can grab and eat them without needing any help or prep work.
- Radishes, baby carrots, precut bell peppers, squash, celery (with optional dips or spreads)
- Finger fruits (grapes, strawberries, cherries, raspberries, cherry tomatoes)
- Easy to handle fruits (apples, pears, plums, bananas)
- Nuts and seeds, dried fruits/trail mix, fruit leather
- Rice crisps
- Whole wheat crackers
Serve Delicious Dinners
The final meal of the day is about much more than rounding out your nutritional requirements. It’s a time when families come together and talk about their day. The dinner table also provides a place for parents and older children to model good eating habits and table manners for younger children.
Some studies suggest that children who eat meals with their parents have healthier eating habits than those who don’t. Families that eat together at home tend to consume less fast food and more fruits and vegetables, and preparing meals at home gives parents control over both the quality and quantity of food. With childhood obesity on the rise, many experts also recommend that parents:
- Serve sensible portion sizes so kids know that “supersized” isn’t normal.
- Help kids understand how to eat until they are comfortably satisfied but not full.
- Let children serve themselves as early as age 5 so they begin to regulate portions themselves.
- Don’t pressure kids to clean their plates; let them judge fullness by physical rather than visual cues.
Curtis Whitwam is the healthy eating & green mission specialist at Whole Foods Market as well as a certified health coach. Stop by Whole Foods Market for cooking demonstrations, store tours, and other events to help you have a healthy school year!