Your kids may feel that it’s come way too soon. As parents, you might feel that it couldn’t come soon enough. But however you feel about it, it’s back to school time. As far as nutrition is concerned, that could mean many things, so this month we’re going to talk about strategies and ideas to help you ensure that going back to school is as good for your children’s bodies as it is for their brains.

Hopefully your family’s summer was full of exercise, trips to the beach, healthy barbecues and sensible desserts involving fresh fruits. But let’s imagine for a moment that it didn’t quite turn out that way. It was too hot to ride bikes, your work schedule didn’t allow for beach trips, your kids aren’t crazy about swimming in the icy Pacific, barbecues ended up involving more hot dogs than eggplants, and “fruit” ended up meaning banana nut muffins and strawberry ice cream. Such things can happen. If that’s the case, then back to school can be the perfect opportunity to set things right.

Breakfasts are a good place to start. Your children are expending huge amounts of energy in the classroom and on the playground, and to be sure their brains are working at their best they need energy, vitamins and minerals. So help them start their day right with some Greek yogurt and fresh fruit, or eggs , whole grain toast and berries. If they love their cereal, find them a no-sugar-added muesli, or make them oatmeal with a small drizzle of honey. Whatever you do, don’t give them a bowl of sugar disguised as breakfast cereal. It’s a practice accepted by many otherwise health-conscious families, but the awkward fact remains that a bowl of “frosted” anything is no different from a candy bar, however many vitamins the manufacturers claim to have laced it with. A good rule of thumb: if it has a cartoon character on the box, don’t buy it.  It may be a battle, but it’s one worth fighting.

Lunchtimes aren’t easy. If your children get lunch at school, make a point of going over the menu with them and help them to choose the healthy options. If you pack their lunches, work with them to devise a selection of foods that you can all agree on. If it’s something they don’t like eating at home, they’re not very likely to eat it when you’re not around to insist, so lunch might be a time when you need to compromise a little. Insist on a few basics – there will be some carrot sticks and hummus and an apple with peanut butter or almond butter, for example – and leave room for negotiation on what else goes into the bento box.  If your kids have participated in developing the weekly menu, they will more likely to eat it. Most important, as always, is to do your homework. The time-honored peanut butter and jelly sandwich, for example, may seem like a good option, but check for the amount of sugar added to the peanut butter, to the jelly and, yes, to the bread, and that wholesome sandwich starts looking more like a dessert than a main course.  Check your ingredients – your local organic supermarket should have all these ingredients in no-added-sugar versions. Above all, check to be sure that whatever you buy contains no high fructose corn syrup.

Finally, back to school nutrition doesn’t end with the school bell. Plan a healthy snack for your children when they get home so that they don’t head straight for the cookie jar. If possible, make the snack with your child – a banana smoothie with almond butter and almond milk makes a quick and delicious snack, or for younger children a puzzle sandwich (make them a sandwich of lean cold-cuts and whole grain bread, cut it up into odd shapes and let your child reassemble it before eating it) can provide both a healthy snack and a little time together after school. And as always, whether or not their lunch has been ideal, make sure dinnertime offers a balanced, home cooked meal. It takes time, but it’s one of the best investments you can possibly make in your child’s future.

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