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Feeding Your Learner: Back to School Nutrition

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Updated on May 31, 2011

As summer draws to a close, back-to-school preparations begin. There are school clothes to buy, backpacks to fill and, of course, there’s finding just the right lunchbox. Making sure your child has what he needs for the school year is more than just having the right lunchbox, though, it’s having the right lunch to go in it, too. How can you make sure your child isn’t going from Popsicles to Pop-Tarts as back-to-school season approaches? By making sure that from breakfast to dinner and all the snacks in between, the foods he eats are meeting his nutritional needs.

Those nutritional needs vary, not only from child to child, but also from season to season. Nutritionist Shereen Jegtvig points out that children’s activity levels may change from the summertime, depending on what their school day looks like. “This is very possible since physical education classes are being cut and some schools may not have many extra-curricular or after school activities,” she comments. In this regard, age can make a difference. Elementary school children often have recess time to get some exercise. This isn’t always the case with older students, for whom back-to-school time can mean trading in summertime skating, biking and hiking for a more sedentary daily routine. So swap the summer sweets with long-burning energy that's good for the brain, such as Omega-3-packed nuts and fish.

Routines also change drastically, and as a result it’s tempting to serve your kids pre-packaged, on-the-run foods as they hustle out the door, but, says Jegtvig, these pre-packaged breakfast solutions aren’t healthy. She notes that cereal bars have as much sugar as sugar-sweetened cereals and packaged breakfast sandwiches contain high amounts of fat and calories. “A balanced breakfast, no matter how quick, should contain protein, healthful carbohydrates, fats and fiber with little or no added sugar and saturated or trans fats,” says Jegtvig.

While a healthy breakfast is a good start, making sure the rest of your child’s day is filled with nutritious food is important, too. When you pick out that lunchbox, make sure to choose an insulated one that keeps foods at a constant temperature. That way you can pack anything from soups to tuna sandwiches without worrying about spoilage.

If, however, you’re unable to pack a lunch (or your tween or teen refuses to take one), be sure to check out the school’s lunch menu. Many schools offer a la carte options in addition to the regular meal, so you can encourage your child to eat from the salad bar, or to grab some fruit to go with her lunch. And don’t worry too much if your child makes poor choices. With a healthy breakfast, nutritious after-school snacks, and a well-balanced dinner, Jegtvig says the nutritional damage can be minimized. What do those on-the-go breakfasts and nutritious after-school snacks look like? Jegtvig offers some easy ideas:

Breakfast:

  • Grab bags containing combinations of non-sugary cereals, nuts and dried fruit.
  • Hard-boiled eggs
  • Walnuts or almonds, either mixed with a little yogurt or plain.
  • Fresh fruit

Snacks:

  • Ants on a Log (peanut butter-filled celery slices with raisins on top). “If your kids hate celery,” says Jegtvig, “try apple slices instead.”
  • Mini-bagels with low-fat cream cheese
  • Pre-sliced fruit or vegetables, all ready to go in the fridge.
  • Frozen seedless grapes

Above all, don’t forget that nutrition isn’t just about feeding your child right. It’s about making sure he’s using that fuel to stay healthy. As school starts up, help your child find a form of exercise he’ll stick with, whether it’s a team or individual sport or even the Wii Fit. Just get him moving!

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