“You are what you eat.”Anthelme Brillat-Savarin
“An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”Elizabeth Wright
“I fight to the finish, ‘cause I eats me spinach.”Popeye
Over the years, we’ve all heard these phrases many times, but most of us don't live by them. As obesity rates skyrocket, especially among children, it is more important than ever to follow some nutritional guidelines and teach your kids about the importance of healthy foods, including Popeye’s favorite treat.
Back-to-school time makes this lesson especially important. There is no doubt that good nutrition plays a vital role in a child’s learning skills. Research has shown that children who eat healthy foods are better behaved, miss less school and are more coordinated and able to concentrate. But where do you start and how on earth do you get children to choose healthy foods?
Lesson One: Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.
Yes, the first lesson is elementary. You’re reading this thinking “I know this, but I have three kids to get ready and off to school. How can I possibly have time to cook a healthy breakfast?” Here's how.
A healthy breakfast doesn’t need to be poached eggs, whole wheat toast and fresh squeezed juice, although that would be wonderful. Luckily, a piece of toast with peanut butter, fruit and a glass of low-fat milk is a much more nutritious meal than fried eggs, bacon and pancakes; and it’s just as easy as pouring a bowl of cereal. As a matter of fact, all that excess fat and sugar will leave your child sluggish and hungry halfway through the morning anyway.
Lesson Two: High calories and lots of fat lurk in most school lunches.
Some schools offer healthy lunches, but most provide unhealthy choices too, like pizza and hamburgers. Preparing school lunches is a prime opportunity to get kids involved in making healthy food choices. Take time to go over the school’s lunch menu and tell your kids about the importance of choosing healthy selections. Hopefully with your guidance they will choose a salad or soup and water instead of a hamburger, french fries and soda.
Or pack a lunch together. But before you grab the peanut butter and jelly, or one of those easy to-go meals that are loaded with calories and sodium, consider the alternatives. Hearty soups, salads, fruits, yogurts, sandwiches with lean meats and low-fat cheese, string cheese and 100 percent juice or water are all healthy and tasty alternatives to the standard PB&J. Put on your creative cap and peruse the perimeter of the grocery store for inspiration.
Lesson Three: After-school snacks.
Children are growing. Fast. Whether you’re feeding a kindergartener or a teenager, snacks are an important way to maintain healthy blood sugar levels, ward off mood fluctuations and keep after-school binging at bay. The old stand-bys are still good – peanut butter and an apple, for instance, are a healthy combination that provides needed protein and healthy carbs. But what are some alternatives for those who prefer soda and orange, cheesy snacks? There are lots of great tasting foods that you can provide including:
- Low-fat milk
- 100% juice
- Half of a lean meat sandwich on whole grain bread
- Fruit – bananas, oranges, apples… you get the idea
- Vegetables and low-fat dip
- Whole grain crackers and low-fat cheese
The list is almost endless, so work with your kids to provide plenty of alternatives that they’ll want to eat.
Lesson Four: Teach your kids about nutrition.
Now that we have you doling out apples and yogurt and stocking the pantry with whole grains, we have one more lesson: Teach your kids about healthy eating habits. Quite a feat. But the same old patterns will prevail if you use the same old tactics. Here are few new rules that will help.
Don’t clean your plate. That’s right. Don’t make your child clean his plate. By allowing your children to identify when they’re full and walk away from the table without eating unwanted calories, you’re teaching them to simply stop when they have had enough. When was the last time you stopped when you were full?
Serve modest portions. Portions today are larger than ever. Teach your children age-appropriate portions. A small child, for instance, does not need a piece of meat the size of a deck of cards. Eat healthy foods in moderation too. Didn’t we just say that in the previous lesson? Sort of. Although nuts are a healthy alternative to chips and candy, eating an entire can of nuts isn’t healthy either. Neither is drinking gallons of fruit juice or eating a big chunk of low-fat cheese. Moderation is key with everything, even broccoli. Just trust us on the last one.
Do not bribe your children, with sweets anyway. We’ve all been there, standing at the entrance of the store hoping to make it to exit without a scene. You lean in to the kids and tell them that if they behave, they can pick a treat in the checkout line – that’s why the chocolate goodies are there anyway, right? Yes. And that’s the problem. High-calorie snacks are strategically placed to entice the fatigued shopper to make an impulse buy. And it works. But that’s about to change.
Instead of giving your children a sweet treat for good behavior during a shopping trip or doing well on a report card or helping out with the chores, allow them to stay up a half our later or give them a 20-minute coloring session with their favorite person, you. As adults, they’ll be less likely to make the impulse buy as they enter the checkout lane.
Don’t create comfort foods. I’m sure each and every one of you can recall a memory of mom or dad feeding you an icy treat over a scraped knee or a broken heart. Then you find yourself there, twenty years later, crying in front of the TV with a gallon of ice cream and a spoon. This doesn’t just happen in movies! Ice cream is a comfort food. Although it’s wonderful to make great memories with great foods, don’t use it to comfort your children. Teach them coping skills that don’t involve a cherry on top.
Let them eat goodies. Yes, after four lessons about healthy eating, we are taking a step back and telling you to give your children something fried and covered in chocolate. It’s OK. There’s nothing wrong with ice cream on a hot summer’s day or hot dogs at a baseball game. Besides, if you ban “the good stuff,” it will become all the more enticing when they discover vending machines as an adult.
Because you can’t watch over your kids 24/7, teaching them about nutrition will help to create habits that will last a lifetime. And making great foods together can be a fun daily ritual. You’d love some help in the kitchen anyway, right? So bring the family together and create some healthy memories.