Banning Boring Lunches

With summer coming to an end, it’s time to put away the bathing suits and prepare for a change in season — and for the kids to go back to school. Aside from thinking about new computers, clothes and school supplies, it’s important to focus on developing nutritious eating habits for the entire family.

Paying attention to the nutritional and lifestyle habits of the entire family has never been more important. As U.S. rates of obesity and chronic disorders such as cancer and Type 2 diabetes continue to increase, it’s especially important to teach kids early on so they develop habits that will last a lifetime. I often advise parents to foster healthy behaviors by including children in the kitchen and exposing them to various aspects of food preparation. Such practices can not only help parents bond with their children in a healthy manner, but also can create positive values revolving around food, body image, self-image and an understanding of the value of leading a healthy life.

Although the federal government has rules and regulations regarding school lunch programs, most kids gravitate toward the consumption of processed foods, and while there is nothing wrong with an occasional “happy meal,” consuming unhealthy lunches on a regular basis can affect kids’ neurological development, psychological well-being and academic performance and put them at risk for developing chronic diseases at an early age. Planning healthy meals for the kids can also benefit the entire family; let’s face it, we all get carried away with cravings, especially when that midafternoon slump takes over. In reality, the guilt accompanying food binges initiates a vicious cycle of health disorders and distorted body image.

5 Back-to-School Nutritional Makeover Essentials:

Planning a back-to-school health makeover is a good way to approach a new season with vigor for the entire family regardless of age. To assist you in planning some creative, easy and appetizing back-to-school meals, I am sharing my five best tips for planning a healthy and affordable school lunch.

Go for the rainbow:
It would be wrong to say that kids alone hate their veggies. The truth is that I work with many adults who also balk at the idea of greens on their plates. To prevent chronic diseases such as cancers and heart disease, we must eat a variety of fruits and vegetables, which contain powerful antioxidants that can prevent countless health disorders. To ensure that you are getting all of the protective benefits from these antioxidants, it is advisable to consume differently colored fruits and vegetables on a daily basis. Instead of having to memorize the tedious scientific names of these antioxidants, just aim for many hues and colors on your plate. My suggestion is to find ways to mask these veggies for picky eaters. I recommend adding vegetables to smoothies, muffins, burritos and even rice. I often make veggies with taco seasoning and use that for quesadillas, burritos and tacos. Try some slow cooker veggie mac and cheese — kids will love it!

Don’t fear fruits:
If you browse social media sites, you will run across a newfound fear of fruits in circulation. Fruits are loaded with cancer-fighting nutrients, and I assure you that no number of supplements or spa procedures can eliminate the damages caused by consuming diets that are compromised in the name of instant weight loss. Eliminating essential food groups is a colossal health mistake in the long term. Kids love desserts; however, desserts need not be loaded with sugars and trans fats. If your kid isn’t a fan of fruit, puree some fresh fruits and create a simple yogurt parfait the entire family can enjoy for dessert. If nut allergies are not an issue, use almonds, walnuts and cashews for toppings in place of processed sprinkles. As an alternative, fruits covered in healthy dark chocolate or blended with nonfat yogurt are easy ways to incorporate these sweet nutritional powerhouses.

It’s OK to snack smart:
When snacks are planned into the daily routine, they can add great value to one’s overall health goals. Asking your kids to snack on raw almonds might seem a tedious task, but once the raw almonds are blended with dates, fiber-rich oats, a dash of cinnamon and some vanilla, they taste more like a gourmet candy. Apples taste better with some cashew butter as opposed to plain apple slices. The idea here is to find ways to incorporate foods such as oats, nuts, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds and fruits — all choices traditionally rejected by children — into daily snacks. Snacks should be rich in good fats, aka omega 3 fatty acids, portion-controlled and loaded with fiber and proteins.

Don’t juice your calories:
Let me start by clarifying the misconception that “no sugar added” juices are healthier choices. Juices lack fiber; therefore, even the “no sugar added” varieties contribute to the addition of simple sugars in the blood, resulting in development of dental cavities, weight gain and mood swings in children. It is crucial to encourage children to incorporate water and other healthy beverages versus soda or juice. Freeze a few colorful fruits in ice trays and add those to their personal water bottles. Not only will the water taste refreshing, but the creativity required from them will encourage kids to get more involved in the kitchen and develop a positive relationship with food and their personal eating habits.

Include all food groups:
Eliminating essential food groups can hurt brain development at all ages. Unless a food group is being eliminated to tackle a medically diagnosed health disorder or allergy, following elimination diets in an effort to lose weight might end up being disadvantageous in the long term. Children need a variety of nutrients to meet the demands of their ever-changing bodies, hormones and metabolisms. Therefore, it is crucial that they be provided a well-rounded and clinically sound nutritional plan. For example, certain foods such as cereals lack one of the essential amino acids (building blocks of proteins) and therefore must always be consumed with an alternative food to replenish that amino acid. Eliminating any food group can result in nutritional deficiencies in children that might go unnoticed at first until they develop into a chronic disorder.

Persuading picky eaters to adopt a healthy lifestyle need not be a daunting task. Get the kids involved in the kitchen, invoke their creativity, and before you know it, back-to-school lunch prep might be something the entire family can enjoy together.

Dr. Suman Ahuja completed her education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York and at Texas Tech. She has a a doctorate in Clinical Nutrition with an emphasis on obesity treatment and prevention.

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