Diet Detective’s 10 Back-to-School Tips

by Charles Platkin, PhD

1. Get Your Kids Involved. Don’t just serve food to your kids, or give them money to buy lunch. Get them involved in the overall “food/family” process. That means having them help prepare the shopping list, plan meals, go along to the supermarket, and even having them help with the actual cooking. In a study done by Nicole Larson, Ph.D., MPH, RD, and colleagues at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, frequency of preparing food was related to lower intakes of fat and higher intakes of fruits and vegetables, fiber, folate and vitamin A.

2. Eat Breakfast. You and your kids should be eating breakfast. It’s easy to prepare, and it will improve your life. The journal Nutrition found that medical students who didn’t eat breakfast were more likely to be fatigued. And according to research reported in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, people who miss breakfast can be more exhausted and irritable than those who don’t. Eating breakfast makes you more productive and can even help to improve your memory. Try to plan what you’re going to eat in advance. You can write a reminder note the night before and put it up someplace where you’ll be sure to see it, such as the bathroom mirror or the refrigerator.

Here are a few suggestions for healthy breakfast choices: banana (or any fruit), instant oatmeal (e.g., Better Oats), low-sugared cereal and skim milk (try to get kids to at least try Shredded Wheat with berries; it’s worth a shot). Yogurt is packed with lean protein (nearly 30 percent of the recommended daily value) and calcium (nearly 25 percent to 40 percent of the recommended daily value). It is a strong, sustainable energy source known to help keep you fuller longer. Stonyfield Farm Organic Smoothie Varieties are tasty, and kids love them. Also have them try YoKids Squeezers, which are fun and only 60 calories per tube.

Need it fast and on the run? Try Dunkin’ Donuts Egg White Veggie Flatbread (290 calories) or the Egg White Turkey Sausage Flatbread (280 calories). Starbucks has The Perfect Oatmeal (available all day) for only 140 calories with 4 grams of fiber — and very tasty. Just avoid the added sugar topping and the dried fruit. Starbucks’ Greek Yogurt Honey Parfait is 290 calories and also good. Or try their Reduced-Fat Turkey Bacon with Egg Whites on English Muffin (340 calories).

3. Plan Lunch. Have the kids help you pack their lunch the night before. Don’t scramble in the morning. Initially, planning ahead may require some extra time, but after a week or two it’ll be smooth sailing. You might even try to create weekly menus with your kids, along with a shopping list. This makes shopping and preparation fast and easy. Sandwiches are a fast, easy and nutritious lunch option. Choose whole-wheat breads, rolls, pitas, English muffins and tortillas. You can vary the type of bread each day to keep lunch interesting and appealing. For filling, use lean luncheon meats, such as turkey, ham or roast beef, rather than bologna, salami or bacon. Add vegetables such as lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers or peppers. Plain peanut butter (meaning no added sugar, just crushed peanuts) is also a good choice for kids; try peanut butter and banana or peanut butter and raisins as a way to incorporate fruits and variety.

Make the lunch process fun. Get younger kids a cool lunch box. Pottery Barn Kids makes one with your child’s name embroidered on it. There are also great lunch containers such as the ones from Fit and Fresh or the all-stainless-steel LunchBots.

4. Snack Often. Healthy snacks help to ensure that both you and your kids have enough fuel to keep going throughout the day. Try nuts, which are nutrient powerhouses; air-popped popcorn; fruit punches made with nothing but puréed organic fruit (e.g., Peter Rabbit Organics); or healthy bars, such as CLIF C Bars, made exclusively from organically grown fruits and nuts, or Larabars. The best snacks are fruits and veggies. Keep a bowl of fruit and cut up vegetables on the kitchen table — studies have shown that if you see them you will eat them.

5. Watch and Learn. Worried about what your children are eating? You can teach them about good nutrition by what you decide to prepare and serve. Your kids model themselves after you: If you eat poorly, they will eat poorly. Lead by example.

6. Try and Try Again. Aside from leading by example, it’s important to try and try again. Research has demonstrated that a child may have to try a new and healthy food up to 15 times before liking it. The more frequently you offer new food items, the more routine and commonplace they will seem. It also helps if the new item is introduced alongside familiar and comfortable foods. You should also try preparing the new food in different ways. Children respond to food texture, smell and social surroundings. Try sampling new foods as a family to create a sort of family taste test or food lab.

7. Eat Dinner Together. According to a survey, nearly 18 percent of kids say their families eat dinner together fewer than once or twice a week, with 8 percent reporting eating dinner together fewer than two or three times a month. According to research reported in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, family meal regularity, specifically for adolescents, predicted higher intakes of fruit, vegetables and key nutrients and lower intakes of soda and other high-calorie drinks. Frequency of family meals also predicted more breakfast meals. And according to researchers at the University of Minnesota, eating on the run is associated with significantly higher intakes of soft drinks, fast food, total fat and saturated fat, and lower intakes of several healthful foods. Finally, Dr. Mary Yannakoulia of Harokopio University in Athens, Greece, found that children who sit down with their family for a cooked meal are less likely to be obese. So, plan a structured mealtime when the entire family sits down and eats a home-cooked meal together at least three to five times per week — no excuses.

8. Eat Chestnuts, Cranberries and Brussels Sprouts. Fresh cranberries are loaded with antioxidants. In fact, according to scientists at Cornell University as reported in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, they have more than almost any other fruit. Additionally, the researchers found that the antioxidants in cranberries are high on bio-availability and have the highest inhibitory effect on certain cancers. One cup of cranberries has only 46 calories and 4.5 grams of fiber.

According to the British Journal of Nutrition, chestnuts have the highest antioxidant content of all tree nuts. They are also a good source of B vitamins, folate, copper, magnesium and manganese. Three chestnuts have 60 calories and about 2.5 grams of fiber.

Finally, Brussels sprouts are loaded with vitamin C (healthy for the skin and the immune system) — just 1/2 cup has 80 percent of the recommended daily value. They’re also rich in vitamin K (which aids in blood clotting), potassium (which lowers blood pressure), fiber (which reduces cholesterol), vitamin B6 (which reduces homocysteine levels — high levels are linked to heart disease) and even omega-3 fatty acids (good for heart health). A half cup cooked has only 30 calories and 2 grams of fiber.

9. Healthy Competition. Take part in the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) healthy recipe competition. The USDA has created a nationwide challenge that puts together teams of school nutrition professionals, chefs and students “to develop nutritious, delicious and kid-approved recipes for use in schools.” There will also be a national cook-off. Check out this link for more information.

10. Let Them Chew Gum. I know, gum chewing, blah. However, I have to say it can certainly help to keep your mouth busy and stop you from eating more unhealthy food. There have been a few studies stating that chewing sugarless gum can improve memory, increase test scores and help with weight control, but the problem is that these studies were mostly funded by grants from Wrigley, the chewing gum company. Still, it seems that chewing sugarless gum in moderation is not a bad substitute for eating candy, chips and cake.

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