From nursery school right up through college, your children need the right tools so they can learn and put their knowledge to use. With proper nutrition, they can strengthen their body and mind for all kinds of activities, whether it's playing with finger paint, running in the schoolyard, catching a football or pulling an all-nighter to cram for an exam. If you create good eating habits with your children on the first day of school, they can continue through the rest of the year, and even for a lifetime. "Instilling good eating habits early can help put a child on the path to a healthy future," says Dr. Kathleen Reidy, registered dietitian and head of Nutrition Science for Meals and Drinks in Nestle's Infant Nutrition department.
Your children will be filled with excitement from learning new things, making friends and taking on responsibilities. They'll be engaged in activities at all ages, remaining attentive for hours, running from classroom to classroom, doing homework and, before you know it, growing into young adults. Their bodies need fuel to sustain them and keep them healthy, alert and strong.
Food is fuel, and a healthy first meal of the day gets the engine going. It's a well-known fact that children who have a healthy breakfast before school will likely have more brainpower and learn better than those who come in hungry. A protein-rich breakfast containing things like milk or eggs can help your young ones' concentration in the classroom. Proteins are essential for a growing child, for they provide amino acids that help build muscles, and when combined with physical activity, those muscles are strengthened. Protein also keeps the stomach feeling fuller and satisfied, and it's rich with nutrients to help bones get stronger as they grow. But what if they can't drink milk (one of the most complete foods available) or don't like eggs? Healthy alternatives include soy and rice drinks, Greek yogurt, peanut butter on rice cakes and homemade oatmeal bars (throw in some favorite ingredients like dark chocolate chips or raisins). With a little trial and error, you'll find out what they enjoy and what keeps them satiated.
More than protein, a growing child -- and all of us, really -- should be eating a balanced diet of protein (animal proteins are preferable to vegetable proteins), complex carbohydrates and healthy fats. Think of fueling the body like building a campfire. Protein helps ignite the flame like kindling. Carbohydrates make the flame grow like tinder does, and fat fuel to the fire to keep it burning. Simple sugary carbohydrates like white breads and pastas, for example, will flare and make the fire burn out quickly, whereas complex carbs like sweet potato and brown rice will keep feeding the fire. Eating small snacks throughout the day tends the fire to keep it burning for hours.
This is especially important when your child is going through the school day, in after-school programs and doing homework before dinner, for it can help to increase cognitive skills and function. Since many children tend to push their dinner veggies to the side, snacks with vegetables and fruits will help your kids reach the recommended five servings per day. Some easy, yummy snack foods that also sustain energy include the ever-popular Ants on a Log (peanut butter and raisins on celery) and variations; sliced apples spread with roasted sunflower seed butter; carrot and celery sticks with yogurt dip; and baked cauliflower tater tots (made with riced cauliflower, bread crumbs and garbanzo bean flour) served with ketchup or creamy avocado dip. Whether homemade or store-bought, there are lots of alternatives to accommodate allergies and other dietary restrictions.
Many kid-approved snacks are a win-win for parents as well, since they're easy, healthy and delicious. Think of stovetop popcorn without butter and sprinkled with vegan or freshly grated Parmesan cheese; carrots and bean dip; gluten-free crackers topped with avocado slices; fresh fruit; and the old hiking favorite GORP (trail mix), made with unsalted peanuts, raisins, pretzel bites and a few sweets like carob chips. Make any of these snacks for you to enjoy as a family throughout the day.
Healthy snacks are best washed down with healthy beverages. Sweetened and sugary drinks like sodas or commercial fruit punches are not recommended. Instead, give your kids lots of water or electrolyte beverages. To make water more flavorful, add a wedge of orange, lemon or lime, or just an ounce of natural juices. Hydration is key to sustaining energy and focus through learning, play and sports each day.
If you make your children's snacks (and even meals) look fun, or even let them help with the preparation, they will likely look forward to these lifestyle changes and have healthy bodies and healthy minds.