It’s that time of year again. Get out the backpacks and lunch box for the first day of school.
Nourishing our children properly before, during, and after school can be a stressful undertaking, especially since this monotonous responsibility happens day after day.
Below are 5 tips to help health conscience parents feed kids during the school year and beyond. 1. Make Breakfast Count
Breakfast is still the most important meal of the day and can impact a child’s ability to concentrate at school. More importantly, recent studies have shown that kids who skip breakfast altogether are more likely to be overweight. Unfortunately, the standard American breakfast is a waffle-toaster-strudel-tart, which neither promotes health nor satiates a growing child’s appetite.
Think dinner for breakfast. That’s right dinner. Some easy healthy meals for breakfast are leftover dinners or items that are typically thought of as evening foods. Some of our favorite dinner-for-breakfast foods are chicken and cheese quesadillas, bean and cheese burritos, easy pizza on sourdough, leftover meat and veggies, and don’t forget good old fashioned protein rich eggs.
2. Be Creative with Lunch
Help kids enjoy their lunch by being creative and thinking outside the box. Parents often get stuck with the idea that a child’s lunch has to be the standard sandwich, piece of fruit, crackers and a drink. Not so, give your kids a variety of choices in small portion sizes. A bento style lunch box is a great way to organize your mid-day meal. The same goal can be achieved without buying a new lunchbox by simply using a variety of any small containers. Giving kids a variety of items in small portions helps them understand what a proper serving size looks like and makes lunchtime interesting.
Some fun ideas for lunch include packing mini pizzas, apple wedges and cashew butter, leftover meat and veggies, or simply a variety of finger foods such as fresh fruit, sliced cheese, raw veggie sticks, nuts and seeds, edamame, olives, or no-nitrate added salami. Make it colorful, make it fun.
3. Don’t Stress Over The School Lunch Program
If your school is like the school our children attend, you too have a horrible government provided school lunch program. It is a disgrace that our government provides the lowest quality of foods to our schools. Some of my least favorite school lunches are “French Toast” or “Corn Chips and (questionable) Cheese” or the green-hued “Beef Nuggets”.
But what is a health conscience parent to do when your child demands buying school lunch? Let them have it. As unhealthy as school lunch can be, the last thing you want to do is make it the appealing forbidden fruit. Instead of outlawing the school lunch program, set up a system that works for your family. Allow your child to buy school lunch as much as once or twice a week or only as little as once a month if you prefer. Pull out the menu and go over the selections with your child and discuss food quality, ingredients, and what makes food healthy or unhealthy.
In addition to discussing food quality, help them make the food-mood connection. Are they more tired, less focused, or irritable in the afternoon on the days they buy lunch? If so, teach them how to pick appropriate foods that build energy for instance.
In first grade, our son became interested in school lunch. So much so that he began throwing away or trading his home-packed lunch and buying school lunch. I was shocked when I got the bill from the school. Fearing that we would make school lunch more appealing by outlawing it altogether, we let him buy school lunch everyday. Finally, after three months, he decided that he would no longer buy everyday, but rather go through the menu and choose the few things he liked. I was doing cartwheels in my head, but calmly asked why this change of heart all of a sudden? His response was twofold: first, he simply did not like a lot of the food, and secondly he noticed that he came home starving and grumpy on the days that he ate the school lunch. Victory!
4. Have a Healthy Snack Ready for After School
Growing kids need to eat. Have a healthy snack ready for them after school. Snack means a smaller meal, so forget about the typical chips and go straight for something substantial. A good choice for an easy snack is always fruits and vegetables. Nuts and seeds are also good on the go. But don’t forget that the lunchtime foods mentioned above also make great snacks too. To streamline your day, pack your child’s afternoon snack at the same time you are packing their lunch.
5. Take Kid Favorites and Make Them Healthy
Remember, food is not good or bad it is the quality of ingredients that makes something healthy or unhealthy. A burger is not good or bad, it is the ingredients that make it nutritious. We know fast food burgers do not promote health, but a well made burger using grass-fed beef, loads of veggies stacked high, and served on a sprouted grain bun produce a great meal.
Anything can be made well or poorly, so take your kids favorite dishes, snack, or meals and make them healthy. Here is a list of kid favorites and what you can do to health them up:
Yogurt Plain, Fresh Fruit, Honey and Cinnamon— Fruit on the bottom yogurt is packed with a lot of added sugar. 4 grams of sugar equals approximately 1 teaspoon. Next time you buy yogurt pick up the plain and add your own goodies. My favorite yogurt is Greek style Fage, but there are many good brands out there. High quality yogurt should only contain milk and/or cream, and live active cultures.
Fruit and Veggies Seasonal— they taste better if they are ripened and picked seasonally. When food tastes like it should (good), your kids are more likely to ask for more. Visit your local farmers market for seasonal produce. If you don’t have a farmers market available to you, buy produce that is grown in your region.
Pancakes Freshly Milled Grains, Eggs, Milk, Spices— Pancakes are one of those items that we think are too hard to make from scratch. In reality, they are very easy and only have a few ingredients. Milling your grains at home provides fresh flour that is vitamin and mineral rich.
Pizza On Homemade Dough or Sourdough, Tomato Sauce and Cheese— I like to make quick pizza’s on sourdough or an English muffin. It’s a perfect quick meal or snack and also great for breakfast. Make sure to look for tomato sauce without extra ingredients like sugar and salt.
Peanut butter, Honey and Jelly Nut Butters, Local Honey, Preserves— Use a variety of nut butters in addition to the standard peanut butter, try cashew, almond, or pistachio butters. These can be often be found in the health food section of your local store, farmers market or at national chains like Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods Markets.
Quesadillas or Burritos Tortilla, cheese, chicken and/or beans— Make sure to read the ingredients on the tortilla package and avoid anything that doesn’t sound like food. Chicken should be free-range and without added sodium. Look for beans without added sugar and salt which are common additives in beans.
Cheese Sandwiches Hormone-antibiotic free cheese on Sprouted Grain or Sourdough Bread— Kids love grilled cheese, it’s great for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Ideally, serve this kid favorite on sprouted grain, but sourdough is also a good alternative. Both types of bread lack the phytates that strip our bodies of essential minerals and are easier to digest than a standard whole wheat bread.
Salami, Pepperoni and Hotdogs No Nitrates/Nitrites Added and no HFCS— these meats once considered artisan meats have become taboo in a health conscience world. I give you permission to eat these foods, in moderation of course. Look for brands that do not add nitrates/nitrites or ingredients like High Fructose Corn Syrup, or caramel color.
Hamburgers Grass-fed —Remember any food can be made well or poorly, so skip the drive thru and make your burgers at home using grass-fed beef.
French Fries Hand cut, Yukon Gold or Sweet Potatoes, Olive Oil and Salt —Bake your French fries at home using your favorite potatoes, a little oil and some real sea salt. Try sweet potato fries as a fun addition to any meal.