It’s time to make your kids hungrier for healthy food options.
Writer: James Combs
This month, the sound of that infamous school bell rings in the start of another school year.
Parents, here’s your first homework assignment. Don’t worry. It does not involve solving algebraic equations, assisting with a science fair project, or helping write an analytical essay about Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities.”
Instead, your assignment is this: Get in the habit of packing a nutritious lunch so your little scholar can achieve academic excellence.
Yes, there is a link between diet and academic performance, according to a 2008 study conducted by the American School Health Association. In the study, researchers discovered that students who consumed adequate amounts of vegetables, fruits, protein, and fiber scored better on literacy tests than those who consumed foods high in salt and saturated fat.
Uh-oh. Those oatmeal cream pies and brownies might keep your child from attending a prestigious Ivy League university. You certainly don’t want to have a hand in that, do you? Of course, planning for healthy lunches is one thing; executing it is a totally different ballgame.
Ze Carter of Leesburg is a chef and culinary instructor who knows a thing or two about children and healthy eating. During the 2016-2017 school year, she visited food managers at various Lake County schools and shared ideas on how to make school lunches healthier and more appealing. And through her nonprofit organization, Kitch’n Lyfe Skills, she has taught culinary classes to both Lake County students and foster children.
To say she is an advocate of healthy lunches would be an understatement.
“In the 1950s, seeing an obese child was extremely rare,” says Ze, a 2000 graduate of Colorado-based Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts. “Now, childhood obesity is an epidemic. More mothers are working today and find it more convenient to serve frozen foods, Frosted Flakes®, and Pop-Tarts. Establishing healthy eating habits early is a wonderful building block for strong growth and healthy development.”
Ze offers tips on how parents can pack healthier school lunches and help their children adopt a healthier eating regimen.
Take the grain without salt
Make sandwiches with whole grain breads. According to WebMD, whole grains have lots of nutrients, including protein, fiber, B vitamins, antioxidants, and minerals such as magnesium, copper, and zinc. Studies have also shown that whole grains decrease your risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity, and chronic inflammation.
“Whole grains are what nature intended our bodies to consume,” Ze says. “Because they contain more fiber and nutrients, our body responds more positively to whole grains as opposed to processed grains.”
Pack fresh fruits and vegetables instead of canned fruits and vegetables. Unfortunately, canned products are usually doused with sugar, salt, and preservatives. Moreover, nutrients are lost during processing.
“I recommend that parents slowly add fresh fruits and vegetables around the house so children will develop an appreciation for them,” Ze says. “Give them a thinly sliced apple rather than a bag of chips.”
Out of season, out of mind
Buy vegetables and fruits that are in season. The reasons are simple. Prices are generally lower and peak nutritional value is guaranteed. In addition, because out-of-season fruits and vegetables need more assistance to say alive, they typically have more pesticides, chemicals, and preservatives.
“One of the best places to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables that are in season are farmer’s markets,” Ze says. “So not only are you eating healthier, you are supporting local farms and helping the local economy. And taking your kid with you presents a great educational opportunity to let them see where their food comes from.”
A flavor of the week
Have a themed lunch for every day of the week. For instance, you could invent days like Meatless Monday, Light Taco Tuesday, Thankful Thursday (leftovers), or Fish Friday.
“Don’t do it all at once,” Ze says. “For instance, with Meatless Monday you can still pack your child a turkey sandwich for lunch in the beginning, but don’t have meat for breakfast and dinner. Then, you can eventually work your way up to where your child is not eating meat at all on Monday.”
There are never too many cooks in the kitchen
Get kids involved in the kitchen. A 2014 study published in the journal Public Health Nutrition concluded that “encouraging children to become more involved in home meal preparation could be an effective health promotion strategy.” Because of the increased confidence in the ability to prepare foods, kids will have a greater willingness to try new, healthy foods.
“Kids are most comfortable when they’re at home, so involving them in food preparation inside the comfort of your own kitchen will be a positive experience for them,” Ze says. “You could wake up on a Saturday morning and ask the kids what we’re going to make for lunch this week. Letting them become involved in the decision-making process is a great way to help them make healthy food choices. You can teach them how to dehydrate fruits and vegetables or make their own granola to get them interested in healthy cooking and eating. The bottom line is that they’re more apt to eat when they participate in the food-preparation process.”
Ready to ‘role’
Be a role model. When kids see you scarfing down calorie-filled cheeseburgers and greasy pizza on a regular basis, healthy eating will be a foreign concept to them. After all, various studies agree that a child’s food tastes are significantly related to what their mother likes and dislikes.
“Healthy eating has to start at home and with the parents,” Ze says. “How can parents expect their children to adopt healthy eating habits when they’re not doing it themselves? I hear some children say they don’t like school lunches because vegetables are part of school lunches. They’ve already developed a mindset that vegetables are not very tasty, and they have no idea about the nutritional value of vegetables. Sometimes, introducing your child to healthy food involves being a sneaky chef. For instance, if I’m making pasta, I use half white pasta and half whole grain pasta.”
Don’t sugarcoat the truth about unhealthy snacks
Have healthy snacks at home. Parents tend to buy kid-friendly snacks such as ice cream, popsicles, oatmeal cream pies, and chips. However, if you stock the cabinets and shelves with healthy treats, children will eat them. Raisins, carrot sticks, sliced apples, whole grain crackers, and low-calorie popcorn are great examples of healthy snacks.
“When unhealthy snacks are out of sight, they are out of mind,” Ze says. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having chips on an occasional or celebratory basis. Just don’t put chips in their lunch on a daily basis. However, you can be creative in the kitchen with snacks and make things such as dehydrated apple chips.”
While packing a nutritious lunch is important, parents should provide their kids with three healthy meals each day. Anna Gunter, a registered dietitian nutritionist at Leesburg Regional Medical Center’s Wellness Center, gives examples of what constitutes healthy meals.
Oatmeal with skim milk, blueberries, and egg whites.
A turkey sandwich with whole-wheat bread, carrot sticks, an apple, and nonfat yogurt.
Skinless chicken breast, steamed vegetables such as broccoli, brown rice, skim milk, and a fruit salad for dessert.
Healthy snacks that can be consumed throughout the day
Nonfat yogurt with fruit, nonfat or low-fat cottage cheese with fruit, low-fat cheese with whole-wheat crackers.
Never skip breakfast
The alarm clock beeps, and your child hits the snooze button to eke out a few more minutes of sleep. The school bus will roll around any minute now. Your child quickly dresses and darts out the door.
What’s missing from this scenario?
Breakfast. That’s not good, especially considering that numerous studies show kids who eat breakfast perform better in school because they have better concentration and more energy.
“When you skip meals, your body may become so hungry and desperate for food that you eventually start to reach for any food in sight,” says Anna Gunter, a registered dietitian nutritionist at Leesburg Regional Medical Center’s Wellness Center. “This may lead you to make choices about what to eat that are not healthy choices. It is best to eat meals and snacks consistently throughout the day. I recommend eating three meals per day and one to three snacks per day, with meals and snacks spaced out so that you eat a meal or snack every three to four hours.”