I think that parents strive to encourage healthy eating for their kids and family all year round, but the new school year presents a new opportunity to freshen up routines and make improvements. The new morning routine also forces some flexing of meal prep muscles to get lunches packed up and ready to go, all while getting kids out the door on time for school, groomed and fed. If you want some color images to get your kids on the same page and excited about daily nutrition goals, check out ChooseMyPlate.gov for checklist handouts, pretty graphics, and practical tips.
Let’s take a look at the 5Ws and 1H of how kids are eating these days.
WHO are your kids eating with?
They are eating with their friends at school, and their friends may eat something different than what your child brought. This could mean that it’s culturally different, which is an EXCELLENT teachable moment to talk about diversity and how different people from various places in the world AND in the US enjoy different foods and that it is not okay to make fun of someone for being different. This could also mean that other kids have juice boxes, and my 5yo asks me why she can’t have one, why she can’t have a lollipop of her snack like her friends. I use this opportunity as a lesson to her that what our family choose to do might be different than how other families choose to pack lunch or spend their money or time, and that it’s okay to be different and at the end of the day, she’s my daughter and what’s best for her is decided by her parents, not her friends’ parents. This will not be the last time she hears this lesson, I’m sure.
In the evenings, kids might be off in various directions for after-school activities and sports, but it’s important to round up the kids for a family meal. Sitting down together for 3 or more meals per week leads to better eating habits in kids (Hammons AJ, Feise BH, Pediatrics, 2011) and less obesity later in life (Berge JM et al, Journal of Pediatrics, 2015). Eating with family gives parents a chance to with their kids, ask a few nosy questions, and model healthy eater behaviors, given that the phones and other screen devices (parents included) are off or put away. I recommend that phones get placed in a basket during meals, might slightly increase chance of eye contact with your teen.
WHEN are your kids eating?
Breakfast is very important, kids who get good grades tend to eat breakfast (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, news release, Sept. 7, 2017) and skipping breakfast increases obesity risk (Yvonne Kelly et al. Pediatrics, 2016). Some kids are just not morning eaters, which is fine, but we have to ensure they eat when they are hungry later in the day. Be proactive and don’t just wait until lunch, which could be 10am or 1pm. Ask the school to allow your child to eat a mid morning snack if lunch is not until later. As a pediatrician, I am more than happy to provide letters to kids for this.
For lunch, try to pack if possible. School are trying to be healthier, but likely to be more processed than homemade versions, and some still offer juice every day! High in salt, fat, and carbs. Also might be cheaper to pack lunch as well.
Planning ahead for after school snacks is also a must because the kids are hANGRY! Offer healthy options at this time. My kids fought over red peppers and often finish carrot sticks (they even ate OKRA!!! – photo for proof!) if I offer them right after school. I don’t get as much success when I offer during dinner time.
Then comes dinner. Period. No dessert. Plus, the average is family is rushing in and out with after school activities and trying to speed through homework. Who has time for dessert? Dessert is an invention by the modern restaurant business (no citation here, just my skepticism). Plus, if there’s a fridge stocked with dessert, pretty sure the kids (and adults) won’t just eat it after dinner, but also sneak it in after school, and throughout the day on the weekends too. Out of sight, out of mind. Go ahead, call me the mean mom, the mean doc. But I’m trying to keep kids healthy and bankrupt future heart and kidney doctors.
WHERE are your kids eating?
On the soccer field, in the car on the way to music lessons, at the dinner table? More to come later.
WHAT are your kids eating?
Offer a rainbow because that ensures your child gets a wide range of nutrients. Offer many different healthy options. I often serve both cooked and raw veggies with dinner because I never know what each child will be in the mood for. When they ask for a second helping of what they like, I bargain and ask them to eat 5 more green beans. Often the final agreed number is 3, but gets multiplied throughout the meal. Kids will eat the carbs and often meats. I work hard to put the veggies and fruits in front of them. And a couple times a week I’ll make a fruit (plus one veggie & protein) smoothie (see recipes here) to make sure they start the day loaded with good stuff!
I cook a lot from scratch. It’s just what I’m used to. It really doesn’t take that much more time to crush some garlic, saute it along with some green beans. I’ll peel carrots, the narrower end becomes carrot sticks for the kids while they watch Daniel Tiger after school, and the thicken end gets cut into half circle chunks (leaving them as a full circle can be a choking hazard) to put into soup. If the fresh vegetables and fruits I buy are about to spoil, I wash and cut them up and freeze them. Great for a watermelon slushy in the middle of winter! Work with fresh fruits and veggies when you can. Freeze them before they spoil to cut down on waste. And buy frozen fruits and veggies when fresh isn’t an option. The only canned foods I’ll usually buy are beans because canned fruits also contain a lot of sugar even if it’s “100% fruit juice” and canned veggies often contain extra sodium.
HOW are your kids getting their food?
Kids can help. Start at the grocery store or in your garden. Allow your kids to choose fruits and vegetables, or if they are not interested in or ready to choose, ask them to pick up a small list of items. At home, chores they can handle include putting away the groceries (again, start small and specific, such as, put the snacks in the pantry, or put the milk and eggs in the refrigerator), ask them to help rinse the fruits and veggies, mix the eggs or salad, to help set the table, to clear the table of the meals, and to wipe down the table. Involve the kids with meal preps can increase their interest in food variety and trying new foods, and teaches responsibility.
Getting their food in smaller plates and bowls can also decrease the quantity of foods that they kids may gravitate towards, like pasta. Works for adults too! Also, start talking about healthy foods like a used car salesman. Sell it like you livelihood depends on it, because your kids health does depend on it. Fake it till you make it right? Maybe it’ll also help you talk yourself into trying more healthy foods. The more you model healthy habits and give your kids the opportunity to make healthy choices, the more likely they are to become teen and adults who independently make good food and lifestyle choices (WaPo article, original article from E Pyper et al, BMC Public Health, 2016). Talk about the colors of the food, the taste, the different ways make them and you healthy and strong and smart!
At the end of the day, I don’t really think in specific quantities when I’m feeding my family, which I guess shouldn’t be surprising because I don’t even measure when I cook – usually a pinch of this, a sprinkle of that, and always a heavy dusting of cinnamon. Instead of counting calories, I set my goal as offering as much fruits or vegetables during the day. I usually serve 3-4 vegetable options for dinner, often mixing cooked and raw versions because it’s so hard to predict what my kids will be in the mood for. I offer offer offer offer offer offer offer (not typos!) several times during the meal. TV is always off during the meals. And I pick my battles with allowing ketchup, ranch, soy sauce, or other seasonal or dip that my kids request. If a dip gets them to eat their cucumbers or lettuce, then dip they get. In practice my kids probably get more than the daily recommended amount of fruits and vegetables, because they are just surrounded by it at all times. They still weasel their way into snacks and nibble on protein her and there, sometimes sipping it when I make them a smoothie. For people who like checklists, here is a sample one from choosemyplate, but don’t let it limit you if your kids want an extra serving of watermelon or a few extra apple slices.