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Fuel kids’ learning with healthy food and frequent family meals

young boy in front of a chalkboard flexing his biceps with a white outline on the chalkboard of the right and left lobes of the brain

Low-octane gas causes vehicles to run poorly and low-nutrition diets produce the same in kids. For maximum energy and performance, in school and everywhere else, a healthy diet is essential.

Challenges to healthy eating

Can healthy eating be a challenge? You bet. Back in 2019 Ann & Robert Lurie Children’s Hospital released findings of a survey done in collaboration with the Chicago Department of Health. In "Challenges to Healthy Eating for Kids,” they identified the percentage of parents who reported each of five challenges: time for sit-down family meals (36%); cost of healthy foods (33%); time it takes to prepare healthy foods (26%); convenience of fast foods (24%); and food advertising (18%). It also showed that “Nearly seven out of ten parents reported at least one challenge to healthy eating for their children.”

a crate of fresh produce with a calculator in the foreground showing the word "expensive" on the calculators display screen

Inflation and the sticker shock that comes with it, in grocery stores and elsewhere, is definitely affecting everyone. In June, a website for ABC Quality, a daycare evaluation resource, in their Leap Years blog pulled together some great tips for “How to Help Your Family Cope with Inflation.” Under the category of “shop around for a less expensive alternative,” in terms of groceries, their suggestions include “seeking out a cost-saving grocery store, purchasing groceries in bulk, or keeping an eye out for coupons and deals on products your family frequently uses.”

Unlike foregoing more optional buys, healthy meals are a must. A post to Healthy Food Choices in Schools, titled “3 Ways Nutrition Influences Student Learning Potential and School Performance,” lists David Just, Ph.D., professor of science and business at Cornell, and co-director of the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs, as contributor. The post says that “Every student has the potential to do well in school. Failing to provide good nutrition puts them at risk for missing out on meeting that potential.”a table with healthy lunch ideas blueberries, carrot sticks, sandwich, banana, grapes nuts juice and milk

Tools and resources for serving up the best 

Lunchtime at school can “look” like a lot of different things including social time with friends and thumbs-up/thumbs-down at what’s in the backpack or on the cafeteria menu. For those brown-bagging it, Cleveland Clinic put together “How to Pack a Healthier School Lunch for Your Child,” suggesting that doing so is one way to help teach them healthy habits “to last a lifetime.”

One great tip they offer is to “Spend some time as a family creating a list of enjoyable foods with your kids. Then rotate the food options from the list into your meals. This can help decrease boredom and ensure that they actually eat the packed lunch.”

They also break out healthy options by protein, grains, fruits, veggies, and healthier sides and snacks, as well as offering tips on drinks. The post suggests that once you have kids’ selected options, every morning (or maybe the whole week on Sunday night) they can choose from each category.

As another great tool, The United States Department of Agriculture has produced MyPlate, which includes a menu planner for families to help create a weekly dinner menu that includes all primary food groups. The site offers the at-a-glance rule of thumb that half your plate should be fruits and vegetables. 

They also produced Snack Time, which promotes choosing snacks “that do not have too much added sugar, fat, or salt.” These include treats such as unsweetened applesauce and low-fat popcorn. It also comes with a chart showing the calories in common beverages, noting that “Drinks can be full of added sugar and calories” and “sipping on sweet drinks can contribute to cavities.” According to their information, an 8-oz fruit drink can have 7 ¼ teaspoons of added sugars. To make drinking water more of a go-to choice for kids, they offer tips such as “Drink water with a fun [twisty] straw” and “Use a cool sports bottle.”

five fun, bright colored, twisty straws against a pink backgroundboy drinking from a blue and green water bottle with a blue sky behind himclose up of smiling boy with a glass of strawberry milk with a blue and white striped straw sticking out of the glass
Making food fun 

Of course, almost every parent at one time or another, has contended with a child who turns up their nose at something that is “good for you.” I Don’t Like Peas, a Level 2 storybook from School Zone’s Start to Read!® Series deals with that very issue through the eyes of a child. A food challenge turns to inspired curiosity after an unusual observation: “Our cat likes peas. She thinks peas are fun. When a pea hits the floor, she starts to run.” The story introduces 50-70 new words, and many of them can be read by changing the initial sound or by rhyming with a known word. 

Another super fun, food-themed book from the same series, this one a Level 3, is The Fabulous Principal Pie. In it, students propose to their school principal a new cafeteria menu that includes “…banana dogs and root beer pie or bubble gum stew with nuts piled high?”

two page spread of a story book for kids called I don't Like Peas with an illustration of a red haired girl not eating her peastwo page spread of a story called The Fabulous Principle Pie with illustrations of crazy food combinations made up by a boy in the story

One more way to make food fun and share nutrition info with a light touch is having kids help out regularly in the kitchen. A New Mexico organization called Cooking with Kids, “educates and empowers children and families to make healthy food choices through hands-on learning with fresh, affordable foods.” They offer kid-tested recipes and a list of resources that include how-to videos on tasks such as “How to Slice and Mince,” “How to Make Salad,” and “How to Knead and Shape Dough.” Time in the kitchen is also a chance to work on math skills—shapes, multiplication, division, and  measurement.

mom, dad, older sister and two younger brothers cooking together in the kitchen

On a related note, eating together as a family helps too. Jill Anderson, in a podcast transcript titled “Harvard EdCast: The Benefit of Family Mealtime,”  reports that “Despite family mealtimes being hugely beneficial to kids, only about 30% of families manage to eat together regularly.”

She quotes Anne Fishel, therapist and executive director of the Family Dinner Project, saying, “There have been more than 20 years of dozens of studies that document that family dinners are great for the body, the physical health, the brain and academic performance, and the spirit or the mental health…”

Fishel and her team asked parents to brainstorm solutions to common obstacles for family mealtime and over 10 years, “collected some of those great work arounds, those real life hacks” and compiled them in a book released in 2019 titled Eat, Laugh, Talk: The Family Dinner Playbook. The cover also says, “52 Weeks of Easy Recipes, Engaging Conversation, and Hilarious Games.”

Help kids make power-driven food choices that will produce their best.

Family eating dinner together at the dinning table, mom, dad and three young kids


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