Feeding Kids for Success: Back to School Nutrition Basics

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Back to school is coming and with it comes falling back into daily routines. This time of year can bring hectic mornings - the return of the morning alarm, getting breakfast ready, packing lunches, making sure homework is completed and packed, after school activities, and ensuring kiddos are tucked into bed on time. When trying to manage crazy mornings and busy evenings, often the first thing to go out the window is healthy eating. It seems a lot more convenient to pick up food on the go, skip breakfast, and toss kids a few dollars to buy lunch at school. But, it's important to remember that good nutrition helps kids and teens do well academically and feel good about themselves!

It's estimated that around 25% of kids between the ages of 2 and 18 meet the criteria for being overweight. It's important to remember that eating patterns developed in childhood are a foundation for habits later in life. Not only do kids need a variety of nutrient dense foods to grow and develop properly, but what and when they eat can affect their performance in school. Kids who eat breakfast do better in school overall. It has been demonstrated that they have better problem-solving skills, better recall, better memory, stronger verbal fluency, and are more creative. They are also less likely to be absent from school. 

Eating breakfast doesn't meant tossing a Pop-Tart into their hands as they run out the door to catch the bus. Getting good, solid, nutrient-dense food into your kid might take a little bit of planning and preparation, but it's worth it both for the habits it builds now, but also for the academic advantage it will give them. 

The Basics

1. Choose whole, minimally processed foods. 

Added sugar disrupts natural appetite regulation and contributes to cardiovascular disease. Do you think that just because your kids don't eat sugary desserts or drink soda that they are not getting much sugar? Chances are, you're wrong. Most breakfast cereals have more sugar that soda. Kid friendly brands are notoriously high in sugar content as well (sugar tastes good, so kids want more...it's just good marketing for these companies). Even frozen fruits have added sugars!

Moral of the story? Read the labels on everything! It doesn't matter if it's fruit juice, granola bars, or trail mix, or whether it's labeled as "healthy." Read the label. Look for added sugars and other ingredients you don't want, you'll be surprised at you find when you start paying closer attention.

Kids who eat a varied diet that is made up of mostly whole foods will get enough protein, carbohydrates, and fats so you don't need to worry about micromanaging their nutrients. Just make sure they are eating as much of a variety of nutrient-dense foods as they can.

Fats are especially important because they help with vitamin absorption as well as helping kids feel full after meals. They are also important in making hormones. Without fats in their diets, kids can quickly develop deficiencies which can compromise almost every system in their body. 

Good dietary sources of fat are nuts and seeds, eggs (the WHOLE egg), full-fat dairy, coconut, and avocado. Cold water fish like salmon provides omega-3s. Consider supplementation with a high quality omega-3 oil blend in kids who aren't getting a good variety of these foods. 

2. Small substitutions make a big difference

If you have traditionally relied on packaged, processed, or sugary foods to fuel you kid, it can take some time to get them used to more nutritious food. In order to make the transition as smooth as possible, consider making some small substitutions can have a big impact.

If your kiddo drinks juice, start diluting it with water. You can also mix flavored yogurt with some plain yogurt or add a little plain milk to their chocolate milk. 

Also, looking for less processed versions of some foods is also relatively simple and can make the transition a little smoother. For anything that comes in a package, the shorter the ingredient list the better. 

3. Prioritize fruits and veggies

Adding fruits and vegetables is an excellent and simple way to start improving nutrition. Whether your kid already eats a nutrient-dense diet or is surviving on mac and cheese and french fries, adding fruits and veggies is always a good idea. 

They are packed full of nutrients that growing bodies rely on and many of them come in their own packages and require no preparation at all. 

Not all kids will love all fruits and vegetables right from the start, especially if they haven't been eating them already. 

If your kids complain that they don't like the taste of vegetables, try preparing them differently. Roast them, make them into a soup, sneak them into a smoothie (cauliflower and zucchini are great for this), or serve them raw. Remember that it can take multiple (10 or more) exposure before a kiddo embraces a new food, so give it some time and keep trying new options. 

Keeping pre-washed and cut vegetables in the fridge can be another way to increase ease and access. Having kids help prepare these is even better. The more involved in the process they are, the more likely they are to be interested in trying new foods. 

Also, one of the best ways to help you child develop good habits, is to have good habits yourself. If mom and dad aren't eating vegetables, kids aren't going to want to eat them either. 

4. Be prepared

Packing balanced lunches at night and storing them in the refrigerator can be an excellent way to save time in a time-crunched morning. Also, preparing lunch at night (when you are putting leftovers from dinner away is a good time), you'll have more time in the morning to make a healthy and nutritious breakfast. Make sure to include a serving of fruit, vegetable, protein, some kind of healthy carbohydrate (if you eat grains something like rice, or if you don't, some baked sweet potato rounds are great), and fun snack like a square of dark chocolate or a homemade treat.

Starting a snack station can also be a good way to make sure that your kids have access to healthy snacks without help from an adult. Clear a shelf in the pantry or empty out an easily accessible drawer. Stock your snack station with dried fruit (no sugar added), applesauce, crackers, nut butters, trail mix, or nuts. You can also do the same thing in the fridge for fruits, veggies, cheese, and lunch meat. 

It can also be helpful to prepare meals, snacks, and chop veggies on days when you are the least busy. Once you get into the habit of doing this, you won't even think twice about it. It can be overwhelming to do prep on the same day you do your grocery shopping, so pick a different day when you are first starting to change your thinking around food and meal prep. Having everything chopped, prepped, and ready to go will make cooking much easier. 

Quick Lunch and snack ideas

Make a wrap with some meat, cheese, and veggies. If you eat grains, use a tortilla or other wrap (we suggest gluten-free), or simply stuff everything into a lettuce leaf or two. You can also make meat rollups without a wrap (roll cheese and veggies inside a piece of lunch meat). 

Dinner leftovers are great too. A piece of chicken, cut up so it's easy to eat. Sliders instead of full-sized burgers or meatballs are fast and can be customized to the taste preferences of kids. Chicken salad, hard boiled eggs, and chicken sausages are also super easy proteins for lunch.

Make sure to add plenty of fruits and veggies too. Fruit salad, applesauce (no sugar added), cut fresh vegetables, leftover roasted vegetables, or cherry tomatoes would all be good options. Nuts are great if age and allergy appropriate. Sliced cheese or yogurt (less than 12 grams of sugar per package) would be great for a snack or to add some fat to lunches.