Sharpen your pencils and shake the dust off of the backpacks that were tossed in the back of the closet back in May...the first day of school is here! Whether you have kids in school or not, the back-to-school energy signals the beginning of a new chapter, the opportunity to make a fresh start, and a time to transition into new habits. To be honest, things at my house get pretty casual during the summer, so each year when we begin a new school year I announce to my family that we will no longer be eating our meals in front of the television or running through the grocery store every other day to pick up something quick for dinner. It’s time to get organized!
But even though I am a health and wellness professional and love to eat healthy food, asking me for advice on how to get picky children to eat vegetables is a waste of time; mine seem to live on pizza, grilled cheese, cereal, and fruit. I don’t want it to be that way, though. Food affects the way our brains function, and our ability to focus, sustain attention, and make good decisions is linked in part to how we fuel our brains with food. I am not going to be much help when my kids get to more advanced levels of math homework, so I really need them to be as prepared to learn as possible. I do my best to equip them with a breakfast and lunch that will help, not hinder, their school day.
After all, what kids eat now affects brain function beyond their school years. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine report that a poor diet has been linked directly to heart attack and stroke, as well as obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and inflammation, all of which can have a negative impact on brain function and performance.
So, no pressure, mom. It’s just the entire fate of your child’s intellect and future health resting in that little lunch sack. But that’s okay. We’ve got this. Giving our kids a nutritional boost is all about making sure their meals contains the A-B-Cs.
A = All-Natural. If our goal is to fuel our kids’ brains with nourishment, we should provide them with real food! Wholesome eating has become much more convenient with the availability of healthier versions of foods that appeal to kids. For example, some packaged applesauce or yogurt contains added sugar, but a no-sugar-added variety is also available and a healthier choice. Most snack foods like fig bars, crackers, and fruit bars are offered in versions that are just as convenient but with less sugar. When you need something quick to toss in a lunch bag, check the list of ingredients and look for “added sugar” on the nutrition facts label. Higher quality brands can be more expensive, so I skimp on other things so I can get better food.
B = Balanced. When advice rolls around that we should be feeding our children as they do in France, I joke that my children are practically dual citizens: most of their meals consist of bread, fruit, and cheese! It’s not an altogether bad combination, since the most satisfying and nourishing meals are those which contain a balance of protein, fat, and carbohydrate. Protein and fat can come in the form of lean meats, low-fat cheese, eggs, hummus, and yogurt. Nuts are also a great source of protein and fat, but usually not permitted in schools due to common allergies. Whole grain starches like bread, rice and crackers are commonly considered to be our obvious choices for carbs, but fruit and vegetables are also carbohydrates. We need a little bit of each to have a balanced meal.
C = Colorful. If you look in your lunchbox and see a lot of beige, liven things up with color. Sometimes it is fun to have a goal of eating each color of the rainbow during the day (popsicles do not count) or aiming for five servings of fruits or vegetables. There are so many creative ways to prepare vegetables that some people’s children really enjoy. Not mine, but we’ll get there. For now, I’m thrilled to buy as many berries as are in season!
Of course, the foundation of these healthy meals is on the habits we have for meal times. Food is a brain and energy booster, but only when portions are appropriate, hunger signals are respected, and it is not used as a reward or incentive.
I hope you have a great start to the school year, whether you are raising children or watching the school buses roll by. I’ve made my family announcement, and I’m sure everyone at my house will be super excited to get back on track. This year, we will all race to the head of the class when you remember our A-B-Cs.
About This Blog
Each week, I write the "Healthy Heather Blog" in the Tallahassee Democrat. It is republished here in case you are not a subscriber (what???). Sometimes it is really good and other times it is just okay. Thanks for reading it regardless of your opinion!