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Healthy Back to School Lunches Kids Will Want to Eat

For many kids across the country, school is starting and that means kids will be eating lunch away from home. Proper nutrition is important for physical health and brain function.

A child who does not get enough nutrients in her lunch or has a sugar crash shortly after lunchtime may have a harder time focusing and learning. But how do we get kids to eat healthy at school whether they are choosing from the cafeteria foods or taking a lunch from home?

Here are some ideas I shared on Oklahoma City’s KOKH Fox 25 morning show to help your kids choose or take healthy lunches they will actually want to eat and won’t trade with their friends.

Get Kids Involved in Choosing What to Eat

Kids who are given choices about what goes in their lunchbox will be more likely to eat what is packed. The key is giving two or three choices among healthy options. Would he prefer whole grain bread or a whole grain tortilla or pita pocket? Broccoli or carrots? Grapes or an apple? Milk or water?

Teach your kids what different foods do for the body and how our body needs nutrients offered by these foods to fuel it so we can do the things we need to do and the things we enjoy. Does your kid like sports or have a favorite athlete? Point out how athletes (such as all our great Olympic champions) eat healthy foods and avoid junk foods so they have the energy and the strength to participate and excel at their sport. When kids understand how healthy foods can benefit them (make them stronger, faster, and even smarter) then they will be open to eating those foods.

If your child eats the school cafeteria’s food, get a menu for the week or month and have your child make some choices from the menu before going to school. This way, you can help guide the choices. If there is not a healthy option listed for a certain day, you can plan to pack a lunch that day.

Packing a Balanced Lunch

A balanced lunch is one that consists of a serving of protein (think lean meats, low-fat cheeses, nuts or nut butter, beans), a vegetable, a fruit, a serving of whole grains (whole grain bread, whole grain tortilla or pita pocket, whole grain rice, etc.), and a dairy serving (if able to have dairy).

Let your child help choose the foods he will take to school and help assemble his lunch. Kids who make their own lunch will want to eat it. Guide the choices when needed and praise healthy choices. And remember, it is okay to pack a little sweet treat too. A small cookie, fun-size piece of candy, or other small treat helps kids learn that these foods are okay in small portions and not with every meal. All things in moderation! As long as it is a small treat, even if she eats it first, she’ll still have room for the rest of her healthy lunch.

Add some WOW Factor to Make Lunch Fun

Another way to get kids to enjoy eating healthy lunches is to make them visually appealing and fun. Think outside the boring sandwich box! Cut foods into fun shapes with cookie cutters or fun-shaped sandwich cutters. Or consider making lunchtime kabobs using wooden skewers or thick big pretzels and alternating meat cubes, cheese cubes, and cherry tomatoes or a variety of fruits and veggies. Mix up some healthy trail mix to eat instead of chips or fries or pack some pita chips, wheat crackers, or crunchy carrot sticks. The more colorful the fruits and veggies, the healthier they are, so make a colorful lunch salad with dark leafy lettuces, spinach, cucumbers, carrots, cherry tomatoes, and pack a side of a low-fat, low-calorie dressing.

Do your kids love pre-assembled lunchable-type lunches? Make your own healthier version with whole wheat crackers, lean meats and low-fat cheeses cut down to size and in fun shapes. Do they like to dip their foods? Veggies and fruits can be dipped into low-fat yogurt or veggie dip. Do they like bite-sized foods? Cut up everything and pack them into separate compartments or put them in small snack-sized sandwich bags. Love a variety of fruits? Cut them up and mix to make a yummy fruit salad. Like to grill or cook-out? Make “campfire” foil packets with their favorite lean meat and veggies, grill until done and pack for lunch. Make it fun and they will be excited to eat their lunch and won’t be tempted to trade!

How to Make Fast Food Healthier for Kids

Research shows that kids consume an average of 55 percent more calories when they eat out than when they eat at home. While you should limit fast food to an occasional treat, it’s not a nutritional disaster if you make healthy choices:

Child-size it.

Keep your kids’ portions under control by ordering the child-sized meals that were meant for them — and try one yourself. Just this one move will cut half the calories and fat from your meal. Or share one order of fries with two or three people. This way, you still get to enjoy a little fast food without a lot of calories. Still hungry? Order a side salad with low-cal dressing.

Balance it out.

Cut calories and increase nutrition by making some smart substitutions. Chowing down on a cheeseburger? Forget the fries and order a baked potato or salad instead. Can’t give up the fries? Order a grilled chicken salad instead of a burger.

Skip the extras.

Save major calories by saying no to toppings like cheese, bacon, mayo and special sauces on burgers; pepperoni, sausage and extra cheese on pizza; and bacon bits, tortilla chips, Chinese noodles and regular dressings on salads.

Water it down.

A large cola weighs in at 310 calories, all of which come from sugar. Regular and diet sodas also contain phosphorus, which can prevent kids’ bones from absorbing calcium. The best bet for the whole family: water.

Do You Know What Vitamins & Supplements Your Little One Needs?

The average healthy American child probably does not need much of anything to supplement their diet and the emphasis should be placed on offering a healthy diet in moderation of all portions of that diet to include fats and carbohydrates (sugar). Most regular vitamins we all hear about are needed in very small doses that are easily supplied by a varied North American diet. Having said that, there are certain groups of children who definitely need supplementation; to mention just a few, certain chronically ill children, certain children from third world countries suffering from starvation or emotional deprivation, or severely abused children in this country who have been subjected to the worst possible environmental deprivations.

The Academy of Pediatrics recommends the following for other special groups:

  1. Since another recommendation is to limit sun exposure in children in order to prevent later skin cancers, and this restriction can lower amount of vitamin D normally produced in sunlight, and therefore, a supplement of 400 IU of vitamin D is recommended based on sun exposure (or lack thereof). For exclusively breast fed babies, 400 IU of vitamin D daily is recommended early after delivery. For those babies drinking 32 ounces of formula a day no vitamin D supplement is recommended since all American formulas have the correct supplement of this vitamin. Whole milk also has correct vitamin D supplement but whole milk not recommended for children over 12 months of age. Check with your baby’s Doctor about the need for this vitamin. Similar recommendations are made for calcium and phosphorus intake.
  2. Babies who are full term and have no problems have probably received enough iron from their mothers during the last month of pregnancy to last the first 3- 4 months so an exclusively breastfed baby should begin Iron supplementation beginning at age four. Iron in breast milk is only partially absorbed. Preterm and developmentally disabled children are also at higher risk for Iron deficiency while formula fed infants will receive the proper amount of iron as long as they continue formula. Fortunately, it is common place for Pediatricians to check a blood count as an indication of iron status at age 9- 10 months and again at around 15 months and if anemia is found iron can be added to the diet. The bottom line again is to check with your Doctor for the need and amount of iron needed for your infant and child.
  3. Large amounts of certain vitamins such as A, C, D and K has never been shown to provide any beneficial effects in normal healthy North American children and can be toxic– this is not a case of “if a little is good a lot is better”- often times this is not the best policy for anything.
  4. As far as other vitamins (such as A & B) are concerned, I stick with my original paragraph that most healthy children eating a fairly well rounded diet over all, (not day to day) does not need any extra vitamin supplement at.

Homeopathic supplements for children are very popular now but there are no adequate recommendations for amount used and frequency for children and therefore should be used with caution; further knowledge and research is needed.

Other complementary medical treatments have no definite guidelines for use in children, but certain children may benefit from their use.

Always involve your child’s Doctor when considering going beyond the established guidelines in your children.

Are You or a Family Member Ditching Dairy? CAUTION!

I once attended a Dairy Forum in Alexandria, Virginia that was all about lactose intolerance. It amazed me to learn how many people avoid dairy products because they think they are lactose intolerant! Before ditching the dairy, consider my caution for you and/or your family, as it can have major nutritional consequences.

When people think of milk and other dairy foods, they think of calcium. But the truth is that milk contains 9 essential nutrients that our bodies need in order to function normally. Of those nine essential nutrients, milk meets at least 20% of your daily value for not only calcium, but vitamin D, riboflavin and phosphorus. That is why the 2015-2020 USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans strongly recommends including servings of fat free or low-fat dairy each day in order to meet your minimum nutrition needs*. Did you know that dairy foods are most Americans primary food source of vitamin D? Much in thanks to the great work by Dr. Michael Holick, we have been learning more and more about the epidemic of vitamin D insufficiency and deficiency that is having serious health consequences.

The lack of nutrient information regarding dairy really hit home with me the other day. An amazing, well-respected doctor I work closely with in my practice shared with me that when a patient comes to him with lactose intolerance, he simply tells them to avoid milk and start a calcium supplement. I had to remind him that dairy not only provides so many more nutrients than just calcium, as mentioned above, it also contains naturally occurring ACE inhibitors similar to the same components given in prescriptive form that help regulate blood pressure. That is why the government-backed blood pressure diet, called the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), has encouraged 3 servings of dairy, because it has all 3 of the nutrients of the DASH diet that help regulate blood pressure – calcium, potassium and magnesium. Milk also contains melatonin that helps decrease stress and promotes sleep. (Ever drink a warm glass of milk before bedtime? There’s a reason behind that!) And as if that was not enough, over the last several years there has been a slew of research coming out on the impact of dairy foods in weight management. Hmm…a link between a decrease in dairy foods and obesity? Many say, yes.

Use caution when avoiding entire food groups,
including dairy. You may be setting yourself up
for nutrition deficiencies that may manifest
in health problems.

Growing up, our favorite mealtime beverage was milk. I grew up in a combined family of 6 children (think Brady Bunch, and I was “Cindy” — the youngest) and my mother reports that we went through 5-7 gallons of milk every week! I drank milk with every meal and so did all my siblings. But I remember very well that when I was around 17 or 18 years of age, milk and I started having problems. Within 2-3 hours of drinking milk, I would have bad stomach pain, bloating and eventually gas that was very characteristic of lactose intolerance. Oh, the shame as a teenage female! The very easy thing to do was just eliminate dairy to avoid the very embarrassing consequences. But as I fell in love with nutrition in the 90’s, I learned that this move was costing me dearly and as a result, negatively impacted my nutrition status. Now, I am enjoying dairy again and that has helped me be a positive role model for my young children.

So, the question for you is – have you or a loved one ditched dairy for the same reason I did as a teenager? If so:

1. Get Diagnosed. Don’t self-diagnose like I did because it could be something other than lactose intolerance. All that rumbles is not lactose intolerance! A proper diagnosis is done via a hydrogen breath test and it is covered under most insurance plans. Keep in mind that lactose intolerance is very different than a milk allergy. Lactose intolerance involves the lack of an enzyme that helps digest the milk carbohydrate, lactose. Milk allergy, or milk-protein intolerance, is mostly found in young children, and involves an immune reaction to the milk protein. If you or your child has a milk allergy, it is highly recommended that you see a Registered Dietitian for nutrition guidance. In this case, complete elimination of dairy components is necessary due to possible dangerous allergic reactions. The good news is that most children outgrow milk allergy by the time they are 3 years of age. It is rare that a person continues the allergy into adulthood. If they do, there are actually immunologists that can do milk challenges that will decrease or even eliminate the milk allergy altogether.

2. Work it in. Most people with lactose intolerance can tolerate small amounts of milk at a time and most can eat yogurt and cheese without the negative side effects. At your local grocery store, there are lactose-free milk products of varying brands – Lactaid®, Dairy Ease® and even store brands now. Lactaid® even has an organic version of lactose-free milk for those that prefer organic varieties. There are even over the counter oral lactase enzyme pills that a person can take prior to the ingestion of dairy. The National Dairy Council has great educational resources to help you find ways to get dairy in even when you have lactose intolerance.

3. Seek a Registered Dietitian (RD). Anytime you are thinking of eliminating an entire food group, it is highly recommended that you meet with a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) in your area to develop a plan for you. You may not realize what key nutrients you are eliminating from your diet that may be compromising your health. As an RD myself, I am very sensitive to the food desires of my patients. If eliminating dairy or other foods are simply a personal preference, we will honor that and can ultimately work within your desires to put together an alternate nutrition plan that will meet all your needs.

Get the facts when it comes to nutrition. Even if it’s written, it doesn’t always make it factual. And we all come with our own nutrition biases, so ask questions about those biases that may have been handed down from generation to generation. Are they really true? As in lactose intolerance for instance, many African American families avoid milk altogether because they already assume it will be a problem. Lactose intolerance in African Americans is grossly overstated, and teaching your children to avoid dairy can have lasting consequences for for them and you. Proper diagnosis and learning ways to get dairy foods in can be the best move for your family. What is your nutrition bias? Dairy or otherwise, ask the questions and get accurate answers. You owe it to yourself and you also owe it to your family.

Editor’s Note: all links have been updated to reflect the most current information available.

  • According to the 2015-2020 USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the recommended amounts of dairy in the Healthy U.S.-Style Pattern are based on age rather than calorie level and are:
    • 2 cup-equivalents per day for children ages 2 to 3 years,
    • 2½ cup-equivalents per day for children ages 4 to 8 years, and
    • 3 cup-equivalents per day for adolescents ages 9 to 18 years and for adults.

How Can My Allergic Kid Join In When It’s All About the Food

Parents of food allergic children dread anything that has to do with food. This includes group activities, crafts that involve food, birthday parties, recipes for school classes, holidays at the family’s house and on and on. It’s stressful for the parents and it can be stressful for the child with food allergies. It’s a simple thing that we all enjoy, that symbolizes family tradition and warmth and comfort. Except, for those with food allergies, it does but it doesn’t. And yes, many parents have been heard asking “Why does everything have to revolve around food?!” but at the same time, realistically, so much actually does.

Let’s look at this as simply as we can. Regardless if you have a food allergy or not, typically we are a society that involves food in many aspects of our lives. Consider some of your early childhood memories- do you remember a special snack or the smell of a favorite food that sticks with that memory? It was a food that offered comfort. Not because it was meant as something to taunt those who can’t have it or to punish people with food allergies- it’s simply a food connected to something within a space in time. As anyone with food allergies can tell you, most of those special foods can easily be substituted using other ingredients. The memory can be shared, continued and enjoyed safely for everyone. Isn’t that what everyone would like to do- share that amazing moment with everyone?

Food is very often involved in crafts as well. Whether it be a cut out cookie, an adorable edible craft or some type if holiday –themed whatever, parents and their children have done this as a bonding experience for a long time. Teachers in school have asked class mothers to help them do this during class festivities as a way to teach the children different ways to use their foods but also to enjoy their foods. Parents have seen how happy their child is when they use their own hands to create these items- the look of being able to do something with little or no supervision, while enjoying their food craft full of creativity. The flip side- a food allergy parent has also seen their child’s face when this happens and they were not given information about it. These parents don’t always get to see the happy face. Most often, it’s the face that makes their heart bleed for their child. It’s the face of a child that is not included, was not able to touch the food or taste the food. For those parents, that is not the tradition or memory that they want their child to remember.

Logistically, replacing an allergic food with a safe, allergy-friendly food very often takes the same amount of time as it does when following the original recipe. All that it takes is for someone to help with replacement ideas.

Help for Parents

  • For those who may get frustrated, wondering why they cannot send a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to school – we have great news! You can just as easily send a SunButter and jelly sandwich or a turkey sandwich. Both take the same amount of preparation but one food poses risks whereas the others may be safe for most everyone. We understand the daily struggle for lunch ideas and sometimes having very little time to plan meal items. If you consider that utilizing the same time may actually help a child avoid a life-threatening allergic reaction, this may give you a bit more of an incentive to consider the options that we provide to you.
  • If you are someone who has a picky eater who “must pack that food” because your child will not eat anything else for lunch, please reach out to the parent that has an allergic child and ask them for ideas. They are masters of finding foods for children. They are a wealth of information and they can offer you ideas on many levels, not just foods. You just need to ask them. Even children with food allergies are picky eaters. Sometimes it takes another person to show you some easy ways to introduce different foods to your child, why not give it a try?
  • Get your own children involved. As parents, we already try to teach them the values of food and how long it takes to prepare meals so why not start with their own lunch? Have them make a list for the food store, ask them if their foods are safe for their friends and if not, help them research some new foods. The more your child is a part of the process, the more likely they are to eat what they asked to try.

Help for Teachers

  • What happens when you plan those fun school crafts that use a food item? Most every food item can be replaced with an allergy-friendly food. Please don’t hesitate to ask the parents of those who have food allergies- they are also there to help you teach what you need to teach.
  • Unless you have food allergies yourself, food allergy parents understand that you may not know what food replacements are safe to use. Ask a food allergy parent to be a class parent to have that extra level of safety on your side. This also gives you a second set of eyes and a built-in helper for that activity.
  • An added bonus- not only are you sharing the food lesson but your class can learn about the foods on a new level that will better educate them for future friends with food allergies.

Lastly, as I always say – food is something that should bring us together, not tear us apart. Children especially are so receptive to learn about their friends, especially if they are different from the other children. Think about how amazing it would be for your child to have a lifelong memory of how they met their best friend because of a food rather than how they were not able to make a new friend because of a food. In my experience as one of those food allergy parents, children are immediately drawn to wanting to learn more about what they can eat to be able to sit with their friends. They are amazed when food allergic children bring in delicious foods and are willing to let them taste it. Even though society tells us the opposite, parents need to listen to their children more often. They need to think about how their behavior is impacting their child’s behavior. Because in the end, if you choose to close that door, it will most likely be your non-allergic child that will be arriving home with the same disappointed look on their face but it will be because they were not able to be included with their friends who have food allergies. Inclusion and exclusion works both ways …because it IS about the food.

Why You Need to Stop Giving Energy and Sports Drinks to Kids

First let’s differentiate between these two popular drinks. Sport drinks have water, sodium, potassium and sugar (among other things), while energy drinks include caffeine or other stimulants. For the most part, after moderate exercise, only water needs to be replaced and free access to water is key to training athletes. While large amounts of water can be lost in highly trained athletes, younger children will probably not lose an exceptional amount of anything, and water is the only thing necessary. Even in adult trained athletes, the amount of sodium and potassium lost through sweating is probably negligible; again water is the vital component needing replacement.

Also included in these drinks is a significant amount of calorie- containing sugars; highly trained athletes who have depleted their sugar resources might benefit from this addition as an immediate energy boost, but in younger children and non-training athletes, this only adds to the sugar intake and can contribute to childhood obesity and dental cavities. These same stimulants can be found in coffee and colas, also to be avoided in younger children.

The use of stimulants in children probably has more unwanted side effects than the possibility of any positive effects. Jitteriness, poor sleep, elevated blood pressure, and increased risk of dehydration through the diuretic effects of caffeine and other stimulants, can be just a few of these negative effects. Depending on the quantities consumed, it can even lead to cardiac irregularities with other potentially serious consequences resulting from that

Unfortunately, these products are promoted in every form of advertising by highly popular athletes in high profile positions and many parents have gotten the idea to have these drinks readily available for their children. Children may actually prefer this substitute fluid in place of other drinks during meals and other snack times. Milk and some juices are still important to the growing, developing child and should not be forgotten. By far the most important ingredient remains water and parents should promote it as the primary source of fluid intake.

Energy or health bars create the same dilemmas for parents and children and may also contain sugar, stimulants, fats, and vitamins and minerals that may not be appropriate for children or may be over the daily recommended intake for children since most are developed for adults.

Always read the labels carefully

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