Tips to Make School Mealtime a Nutritious Success

It’s that time of year again. The dog days of summer are no longer and getting out of the variable, laissez-fair approach to summer lunches and back into the swing of a nutritious school routine is on the menu.

It has long been understood that smarter nutrition equates to smarter kids, yet one peek in a school cafeteria and you’ll see it’s getting more and more difficult to expose your child to healthier items.

If you're like most parents, the very notion of packing upwards of 180 healthy lunches a year seems daunting, especially if you have a picky eater on hand. But the good news is that there are some straightforward solutions to make school mealtime a nutritious success.

Involve your Child. involving them at even the youngest school age—from planning to preparation of weekly lunches—not only excites them to try new things, but it also makes them feel part of something bigger. Having a variety of bagged items in the pantry or fridge for the week helps make packing both efficient and convenient to grab and go. Kindergarteners can count out snacks such as graham crackers or grapes and put them in sealed baggies—which not only helps them with basic math skills, but also gives them a benign exposure to the importance of portion control.

“It’s important to teach kids what healthy portion sizes are. Offering healthy choices that taste good is key. Allowing your child to choose between two healthy options can also help them to be more open to foods," said Emily McPhee, clinical dietitian at South Shore Hospital.

Make it Fun. Often, the simple art of making food look fun can, in turn, make the entire experience that much more palatable. With a bit of creativity, food can be both healthy and fun. Making shapes with cookie cutters is a wonderful way to entice children to eat their sandwiches or fruit. For younger kids, replace a traditional skewer with coffee stirrers, popsicle sticks or mini straws to create great kabobs. Take turkey, cheese, cucumber and tomato cut into fun shapes and put them on a coffee stirrer and…voila you have yourself chef’s salad on a stick. Set no limits to your creative genius…presenting your little one’s food in a fun-like manner will bring them a sense of eating enjoyment compared to that of a traditional boxed lunch.

Go Bento! Make a Snack-Inspired Lunch. No matter how wonderful and tasty you might make your child’s lunch, the reality is that during that crowded 20-minute, chaotic routine in the school cafeteria, the clock dictates how much time they have to eat and every second counts.The advantages of a single container bento approach to lunch is that it eliminates the need for opening multiple containers in a small window of time, while also offering a wider variety of foods in smaller portions—a good solution to help stave off boredom.

“Children have small stomachs and may prefer to nibble, rather than eat fewer, bigger meals. Using a bento approach can help separate food groups that together form a balanced meal,” Emily explains.

Be flexible. Eating healthy never means excluding goodies completely. In fact, studies show that depriving kids of cookies or treats increases their desire to eat them, making it very likely to overeat those very sweets any and every chance they get. Let’s face it; it’s understandable that some parents have chosen to outlaw sweets altogether especially with all the well-deserved messaging surrounding pediatric obesity. However, in order to help our kids have a healthy relationship with food, including those yummy desserts; we have to exercise a bit of flexibility and meet somewhere in the middle.

“While there is nothing wrong with limiting sweets and controlling the amount kids have access to, the real key is to control what you can while allowing some flexibility,” Emily said. “It is recommended that kids have no more than 25 grams of added sugar per day, so allowing occasional treats is okay if their overall diet is low in added sugar.“

So, this school year, remember to celebrate the small victories, even if it’s just getting your son or daughter to try a new, healthy food or getting that extra quality time together prepping school snacks and lunches in the kitchen. If we as parents continue to model healthy eating behaviors for our children, those good habits will begin to rub off and they will reap the healthy rewards of good nutrition.

For more information about nutrition services at South Shore Health, please visit our website.