It’s almost time for back to school and I’m sure all of you parents out there have a ton on your minds, so I apologize in advance for giving you one more thing to think about: food and nutrition.
I know things are about to get crazy busy, but it does not change the fact that school aged children are at an extremely important stage of mental and physical development and require good nutrition to support their growth, school performance and physical capabilities.
It is very important to set strong examples for your children and provide them with healthy choices as often as possible, even though we all know this won’t always be realistic in the context of a hectic lifestyle.
Don’t fret though, today’s article will help you understand the easiest and best ways to keep your child as well-nourished as possible even when time is tight.
Breakfast is, without a doubt, the most important meal of the day for your child’s focus at school.
For me, milk and cereal is a breakfast classic that does not really need replacing if it is something that your child enjoys.
Kids need the nutrients that grains and milk provide, and it is a tried and true combination that is easy to prepare and time friendly.
The only problem is, it can be difficult to choose a healthy breakfast cereal for a child with all the well marketed options out there.
There are, of course, several cereal varieties such as All Bran and Fibre One which are known to be particularly healthy, but I question the number of children who will be jumping at the chance to consume these cereals.
Here are my top 3 reasonably healthy cereals that I think your kids will actually be okay with:
- Honey Nut Cheerios
- Frosted Mini Wheats
- Any of the Kashi “Go Lean Crunch” Line
To take the classic cereal and milk breakfast to the next level of health, add either nuts or seeds to the cereal or add a piece of fruit to the meal. If your child enjoys a big breakfast, add both!
For those whose children aren’t big fans of cereal, here are my top 6 breakfast alternatives:
- Whole grain waffles with a glass of milk and a piece of fruit
- Greek Yogurt with berries and nuts/seeds
- A banana with nuts/seeds and a glass of milk
- Oatmeal with a nuts/seeds, a glass of milk and a piece of fruit
- Whole grain toast with peanut butter and a piece of fruit
- Whole grain toast with eggs and a piece of fruit
For those who are truly in a time crunch, providing your children leftovers from a healthy dinner probably makes the most sense. I also appreciate that this may not always be possible, so here are my quick and easy healthy lunch sandwich tips for when leftovers are not an option:
- Use a whole grain bread, pita or tortilla as a base.
- Include a source of protein such as canned tuna, beans or low sodium chicken/turkey slices.
- Fit whatever vegetables you can. Lettuce or tomatoes in the sandwich or carrots on the side.
- Always add a piece of fruit for dessert.
- If your child enjoys a larger lunch, you can add a yogurt here as well.
After School Snacks
When it comes to snacks, simpler usually means healthier too.
Here are my top 7 super quick after school snack picks for your kids:
- Greek Yogurt: Add berries or nuts/seeds for more substance.
- Plain Popcorn: Avoid the buttered or artificially flavoured varieties.
- Nuts & Seeds: These go great with a piece of fruit or just by themselves.
- Milk with granola bars: Skip the cookies, and provide a glass of milk with a granola bar.
- Crackers/Rice Cakes with Peanut Butter: A classic combo that kids love.
- Veggies with dip: Carrots and celery with hummus dip (if your kids happen to like it).
- Fruit: You can never go wrong with a piece of fruit as a snack at any time of the day.
As a nutrition professional, I feel strongly that a healthy dinner for your child should almost always consist of three important components.
- Vegetables: I know that vegetables are a big challenge with most children, but it is important to try to have them available at the dinner on most nights. If you are tight for time try serving vegetables that can be enjoyed raw such as carrots, bell peppers and leafy salad greens. When you have more time to prepare foods, broccoli and cauliflower are a great choice. Offer your child a variety of vegetables on a weekly basis to help determine which they like best, and stick with those going forward.
- Starches: I classify foods such as pasta, rice, bread, quinoa, potatoes, sweet potatoes and corn in this category. These foods are an important source of energy and specific nutrients for your child and can be generally prepared in bulk for multiple days at a time. You should always try to serve one item from this group with dinners and when you are choosing grains like pasta, rice or bread try to aim for the whole grain (brown) variety if your kids don’t mind it.
- Protein: There are a wide variety of protein sources available to your child, depending on their preferences. Tofu and legumes (beans, lentils) are great affordable vegetarian sources while chicken, beef, fish, pork and eggs are among the highest quality animal sources of protein.
You can combine the components from each of these three groups in any way your family likes.
Here are some healthy, quick and relatively easy meal examples:
- Ground beef burgers with whole grain burger buns and a side salad.
- Chicken or tofu teriyaki stir fry served with your child’s favourite veggies on a bed of rice.
- Corn, Baked or sweet potatoes served with your child’s favourite fish and broccoli.
- Home-made pizza made with whole grain crust, chicken and your child’s favourite veggies.
- Whole grain toast with eggs and carrot sticks.
- Spaghetti with tomato sauce and lentils or tuna.
Fruit is almost always the best idea for dessert after dinner, especially if your child has not had a chance to have any throughout the day.
Remember that once you have prepared a healthy dinner, you also have a healthy lunch ready for your child for the next day too.
There you have it, my ultimate back to school healthy eating guide. Remember that, although not every single meal or snack will be perfect, every meal counts and is an important opportunity to nourish your kid’s minds and bodies. Proper nutrition is important for proper growth, mental focus and physical performance in sports and activities, and should not be overlooked.
I also appreciate how hard it can be to find the time to prepare healthy meals for your children, so even if you are able to apply the principles in this guide 75% of the time, you are doing a great job.
Here’s to a happy and healthy school year!
Andy De Santis RD MPH
Andy is a Toronto-based registered dietitian and nutrition writer who holds a master’s degree in public health nutrition. You can learn more about Andy and his services at AndyTheRD.com.