Elizabeth (Lizzie) Bertrand, R.D.N.
Speaking of HealthMaximize memory function with a nutrient-rich dietMay 30, 2023
Healthy eating is important at every age, but especially in growing children. Research has shown there's a close link between nutrition and learning. A healthy diet improves children's ability to focus, memory, brain function, behaviors and moods.
The basics of a healthy diet include a variety of fruits, vegetables, grains, proteins and dairy or fortified soy alternatives. Beverages should be nutrient-rich and have little to no added sugars.
If creating a healthy, balanced family meal plan feels overwhelming, start with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's MyPlate guidelines. These guidelines call for half of the plate to be fruits and vegetables and the other half split between grains and protein, with a serving of dairy on the side.
Packing a healthy grab-and-go lunch
While many children eat a prepared lunch at school, others bring their lunches from home. If you pack a school lunch for your children, you can help beat the back-to-school blues by giving them something that not only satisfies their hunger but also boosts their attention and energy for a day of learning.
When packing lunches that can help your child succeed in school, include these foods:
At least half — 3 ounces — of the grains eaten daily should be whole grains, which are packed with fiber. When you check a product's ingredient list, the first ingredient should be a whole grain, such as whole wheat, brown rice or whole oats.
Sandwiches are an easy way to include whole grains at lunch. Make them with whole-grain bread, bagels, pitas or tortillas. Or pack a whole-grain side dish featuring quinoa, brown rice or a snack bag of whole-grain crackers.
Choose lean cuts of meat, poultry and fish prepared without additional fat or oil. Baking, broiling and grilling are healthy ways to cook proteins. Nuts, beans and lentils also are packed with protein.
Foods with protein help children feel full longer. A sandwich of peanut butter, almond butter or lean meat and sliced cheese is a lunch-bag staple. Or make a wrap by spreading a tortilla with hummus and rolling it up with shredded lettuce, sliced tomatoes and shredded chicken. On frosty days, fill an insulated container with chili. To add protein on the side, pack string cheese, a yogurt cup or a handful of nuts.
Fruits and vegetables
Aim for 1½ to 2 cups of fruits and at least 1½ cups of vegetables daily. Keep in mind that 1 cup of 100% fruit juice is equal to 1 cup of fruit. Fresh fruits and vegetables get their colorful appearance from the essential vitamins and minerals they contain. Add a variety of fresh vegetables and fresh, dried or canned fruits to your children's lunchboxes.
Some ideas for lunch-friendly veggies include cucumber slices, celery, carrot or jicama sticks dunked into a low-fat dip or hummus, or a small container of cherry tomatoes or sugar snap peas. Whole, fresh fruits like oranges, bananas, grapes, apples and pears are perfect for lunches. Or pack a snack bag of raisins, apricots or dried banana chips.
The best way to keep children hydrated is to have them drink water or milk. Milk is a great source of calcium, which helps build strong bones. Avoid juice, soda or energy drinks, which are high in sugar.
For the most part, no foods are off limits when it comes to building a healthy, balanced meal. But some foods should be limited because they lack nutritional value, including:
- High-fat foods that contain more than 30% of daily calories. You can find this information on the nutrition label.
- Foods that cause dental cavities, such as soda, gum, candy and sugar-sweetened beverages. Too much sugar has been shown to have a negative effect on academic performance.
- Caffeinated drinks, which can cause restlessness and dehydration.
Pack what kids like
Even the best-packed lunch won't be any good if it goes uneaten.
Here are a few tips for packing lunches your children will eat.
- Get them involved.
The best way to find out what your child wants is to ask. This conversation will be a chance to talk about making healthy food choices and help keep lunches from going to waste.
- Pack familiar foods.
Familiar foods usually aren't boring to children. They're foods they enjoy and will eat.
- Give them options.
Pack a variety of items so your children can choose what to eat. Even if they don't eat everything at lunch, they can snack on leftovers later.
Give these recipes a try for livening up school lunches and fueling your children's school day:
- Overnight refrigerator oatmeal
Who says you can't eat oatmeal for lunch? This version is eaten cold, and loaded with calcium, fiber and protein. Just add apple slices or an orange on the side.
- Apples with dip
Kids love to dip. Change up this low-fat dip by stirring in a little cinnamon. Round it out with a snack bag of mixed nuts and raisins.
- Savory vegetable dip
Is it a dip or a spread? Pair it with assorted fresh veggies or spread on a bagel, pita or tortilla and top with turkey or chicken, vegetable slices and shredded cheese.