August is a big month to recognize nutrition for youth health. A healthy diet is important for children and adolescents because it promotes needed growth and development and it prevents health problems later in life. To recognize Kids Eat Right Month, here are some tips for helping your children eat right every day:
Most school-aged children are awake for school early in the morning, making it difficult to eat a good breakfast, or even eat breakfast at all. Set your children up for success from the start of their days by giving them nutritious breakfast options. Try to include a fruit or vegetable, whole grain (such as whole wheat toast, cereal, or an English muffin), and source of protein (such as eggs, milk, or yogurt) or unsaturated fat (such as nuts, avocado, and plant-based oils). Here are a few breakfast ideas to get you started:
- Whole wheat toast with a plant-based oil (such as olive oil) and a piece of fruit
- Overnight oats or oatmeal with fruit and nuts
- Hard-boiled egg with a piece of fruit and a whole grain muffin
- Whole grain English muffin with chopped fruit and peanut butter
- Whole grain pancakes (made ahead of time) with chopped fruit and peanut butter
- Whole grain cereal with nonfat or low-fat milk and a piece of fruit
- Nonfat or low-fat yogurt with fruit and nuts
- Omelet with vegetables and a piece of fruit
- Egg burrito with a whole wheat tortilla, black beans, scrambled eggs, and vegetables
- Egg sandwich with a whole grain English muffin, egg, and slice of low-fat cheese
You may think eggs take too long to cook in the morning, but there are ways to make it easier to eat eggs for breakfast. One way is to bake eggs in a muffin tin in advance and refrigerate them until you’re ready to reheat them. Also, you can cook scrambled eggs in the microwave instead of on the stovetop. If you like hard-boiled eggs, you can make a whole batch in advance and refrigerate them. Hard-boiled eggs make a great choice any time of the day!
At-School or Packed Lunches
Whether your child brings a lunch from home or eats school-provided lunch, there are many ways your child can get the nutrition they need to keep them nourished and focused. When packing a lunch, pack it the night before and refrigerate it so the lunchbox is cold when your child leaves for school, saving valuable time in the morning! Also, choose an insulated, soft-sided lunchbox and use frozen ice packs to keep cold foods cold. Use an insulated container like a thermos for hot foods like soup. If possible, have your children refrigerate cold foods once they get to school.
When packing a lunch for your child, try and include foods that don’t need to be microwaved since the school may not provide a microwave to students. Sandwiches are an easy and versatile lunch choice. Use whole wheat sandwich bread, whole wheat pita bread, or a whole wheat tortilla. Try spreads like hummus, mustard, and mashed avocado instead of mayonnaise. Look for low-sodium deli meats and low-fat cheeses. Go for as many vegetables as your child likes, such as tomatoes, greens (lettuce, spinach, arugula, Swiss chard), bell pepper, cucumber, carrots, and onions. For peanut butter and jelly, go “light” on the jelly or use fresh fruit to reduce sugar intake. For “salad” sandwiches like tuna or chicken salad, use low-fat mayonnaise and swap some of the mayonnaise for plain low-fat yogurt. In addition to a sandwich, put other foods in their lunch to get all 5 food groups and keep them full through the afternoon. This might include a piece of fruit, raw vegetables (such as carrots, celery, and broccoli), low-fat or non-fat yogurt, peanut butter, hummus, and whole grain crackers.
When buying lunch at school, children should avoid choosing packaged foods like chips and cookies. Encourage kids to choose grilled or baked protein options over fried, and load up on vegetables and fruits. Also, encourage them to choose drinks like water or milk instead of sugar-sweetened beverages.
With hungry children and teens coming home from school, be prepared with nutritious snacks that won’t spoil their dinner. Try a homemade trail mix with whole grain cereal or pretzels, nuts or seeds, and dried fruit. You can also pop your own popcorn (or buy low-fat, low-salt popcorn) and add seasonings and spices instead of salt, such as grated Parmesan cheese, chili powder, and cinnamon. For a cold treat, make a smoothie with low-fat yogurt and frozen fruit. Keep ready-to-eat vegetables like chopped celery and cucumber in the refrigerator that are convenient for children to grab and eat after school. Likewise, keep whole pieces of fruit on hand such as apples, bananas, oranges, and pears. Whole grain crackers with low-sodium deli meat and low-fat cheese are a more nutritious alternative to pre-packaged snack combinations.
Having children participate in preparing food is a great way to encourage them to try the food you make. Fruit salsa can be made in advance and children can help prepare it–and it tastes great with homemade cinnamon crisps!
Dinnertime is a great time to get kids involved with cooking. As with any meal or snack, have your children play a role in shopping, deciding what to eat, and preparing the food to encourage them to eat the nutritious foods you buy. Preschoolers can help with gathering kitchen tools and ingredients, measuring ingredients, and mixing things together. Show them the recipe along the way to get them acquainted with following a recipe before they learn how to read. Young school-aged children can start learning how to use a plastic knife. Have them help cut softer fruits and vegetables like bananas and mushrooms instead of harder ones like apples and carrots. This is also a good age to have children start setting the dinner table for you. Pre-teens and teens, with enough practice, may be able to cook whole meals on their own, or can at least assist with most steps involved in making dinner.
Eating dinner as a family can help children do better in school, promote high self-esteem, lower risk of obesity, and much more! It’s also a great opportunity to teach children table manners and how to have a conversation without cell phones and other electronics involved. Eating nutritious, satisfying foods is important for your children’s health, but the time spent eating with your family is also a key part of their health, so try and eat together as a family every night.
Remember to set a good example for your children. Model healthy eating, physical activity, and getting enough sleep to encourage them to do the same. You’re their biggest role models–take advantage of this and help them eat right!