It’s that time of year again when lazy summer days turn to structured hours of in-class learning and after-school activities for our children. While your child might be focused on who is in their homeroom class, you’ve got to have their health and nutrition top of mind.
Let’s face it, a school day only has a short lunch period and a 10-minute snack break, which leaves limited time to incorporate healthy and filling meals. The conundrum is this: if your child isn’t getting the proper nutrition he or she needs at school, their brains and bodies aren’t working to their fullest potential when it comes to science class or soccer practice.
Here are a few tips to fuel your child’s brain (and body) during the school year:
It all starts with a nutrient-rich breakfast.
Kids sleep 8 to 12 hours every night, and when they wake up in the morning, their bodies need to be refueled. Skipping breakfast can make kids feel tired, restless, and irritable. Breakfast will also help kick-start their metabolism and give them the energy to be physically active; both are ways that help manage a child’s weight.
Not only does eating breakfast have effects on your child’s mood, energy levels, and weight control, but it also benefits them in school. Studies have shown that children who eat breakfast actually perform better in school. How much breakfast will benefit your child depends largely on what they are eating.
Breakfast, like all meals, should be well-balanced, including foods from multiple food groups (fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy, and protein). But more specifically, your child’s breakfast should include complex carbohydrates (whole grains, vegetables, and oatmeal), fiber, and healthy fats (avocado, nuts, and beans).
Follow up a nutritious breakfast with a healthy lunch.
Like breakfast, you want to pack your child a well-balanced lunch. Try to have at least one fruit, one vegetable, some protein and a healthy carbohydrate. Here are some other healthy lunch tips:
- Try swapping out the white bread in sandwiches, instead opting for 100% whole grain bread. Whole grains are high in folate and other B vitamins which help improve memory. They are also high in fiber, which will keep your child feeling fuller longer to make it through the school day before coming home for their after-school snack.
- If your child isn’t a fan of sandwiches (or if you just want to switch things up), try making pasta salad with whole grain pasta.
- Educate your child about picking healthy choices when they must buy lunch. Make sure they know to avoid greasy, deep fried foods such as pizza, fries, and chicken nuggets, but rather to choose healthier options like sandwiches, stir-fry, and salads, and to pair their entrée with a fruit and/or vegetable.
Now it’s time to think about an after-school snack!
Your child has just come home from a busy day filled with learning, and they’re looking to soothe that after-school hunger. You could give them chips, cookies, or any other fatty and sugar-filled treat, but it’s better to treat them with a healthy snack that will fuel their bodies and get them ready to work on homework or go to practice. Some ideas are:
- Hummus and pita bread
- Vegetables and dip
- Fruit salad
- Apples and peanut butter
- Chocolate dipped frozen bananas
- Sweet potato fries
- Air-popped popcorn
- Peanut butter and crackers
- A smoothie
- Cheese and crackers
- Trail mix
Don’t be afraid to try new recipes like the Unicorn Yogurt Dip pictured above! Experiment with different snacks and see what your child likes. Once you have found a few snack choices, stock up on them and have them ready for when they come home.
If your child has an afternoon filled with physical activity, make sure you focus on feeding them a snack with protein and carbohydrates. These foods will provide enough energy to last the whole afternoon, along with strengthening their muscles. Even if your child doesn’t have any after-school activities that day, limit the amount of time spent on mindless activities such as video games and TV. Your child has spent most of the day sitting at a desk, so take them outside to play some fun games! Physical activity is important in a child’s body development and can help reduce their chance of becoming obese later in life, along with reducing the risk of many diseases.
Rethink family meals and provide a MyPlate kind of dinner.
Teach your child about MyPlate. The new food guide was developed so that children can visually see how much of each food group they need to eat every day. A MyPlate dinner includes half the plate being fruits and vegetables, a quarter being a protein, and the other quarter being a grain, preferably a whole grain (brown rice, quinoa, whole grain bread). It might be difficult to get your child to eat half a plate of vegetables, so try experimenting with different vegetables and techniques of cooking them (roasting, boiling, steaming), until you find something that your child enjoys.
Overall, limit your child’s consumption of processed foods, as well as those high in added sugar and saturated fats. Make sure they are receiving enough fruits and vegetables, along with whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats. And don’t forget to teach them healthy eating habits so that even when you are no longer packing their lunches, they will know how to make healthier choices!