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  • Sophia Kamveris, MS, RD

The ABC's of Back to School Eating

It's hard to believe that summer’s almost over and that school is just around the corner. For many, that means getting the kiddos back into a schedule of healthy sleeping and eating habits. Food and sleep nourish the brain and fuel the body, making for exceptional students!

I recently spent a few days at the beach visiting a friend with two young boys who, along with 30 other children, were engaged in four straight hours of summer activities. As moms lined up their beach chairs to watch the kids at swim lessons in the ocean, I decided to ask them what they pack for their kids’ lunches. What better time to address the importance of hydrating and fueling energetic bodies!

Portability is a must for moms and one particularly noted that the food “has to weather the lunchbox!” I can only imagine what trauma the lunches endure before making it into hungry tummies. Packing a healthy lunch doesn't have to be overwhelming but it does require a bit of pre-planning; both shopping for the food and assembling it.

The more color there is in food the more nutrition it has; and it’s great if you can include every food group -- vegetables, fruits, grains, protein, and dairy into a lunchbox. Nutritionally speaking, there are three (macro) nutrients that supply energy to the body: carbohydrates, protein, and fats. It’s all about the balance of these three that will supply more brainpower and energy to keep a student alert and engaged while in school.

Because mornings are always so hectic, and trying to get a kid out of bed is like landing a man on the moon….oops, we've already done that so maybe there is still hope to wrestle them out of their cocoons in the AM! It may be a better idea to pack lunches the night before. I always make my smoothie ( the night before and I've never had a problem with it. For breakfast, consider homemade banana or zucchini bread or muffins with some string cheese or hard-boiled eggs. Peeled hard-boiled eggs are available commercially now if you don't want to boil eggs. Quaker Oats has also just come out with overnight oats that are portable. ( I’m a huge fan of Dave’s Killer Bread! Spread some nut butter on it and they are off!

Carbohydrates have gotten a bad rap. But kids especially need carbohydrates, which are primary sources of calories needed to fuel active bodies. Fruits, vegetables, dairy, and whole grains are all great sources of carbohydrates. Try to eat carbohydrates in their least processed form. That means a piece of fruit and not a fruit rollup! All moms agreed that their kids could be picky eaters, so finding foods that are nutritionally rich, as well as foods that their children actually like to eat, are common challenges. Apple slices, bananas, clementines, grapes, and carrot sticks were high on the mom’s go-to list. Pretzels, cheddar fishes, and rice cakes are other kid favorites, but they are highly refined, and are not as nutritionally sound as Mother Nature’s homegrown fruits and vegetables.

Protein is another vital nutrient that builds and repairs muscle tissue, and provides essential calories, as well. Hummus (made from legumes/chickpeas), yogurt, nut butters, and cheese are great sources of protein. Unfortunately, many schools ban all nuts due to allergies. Sunflower seed butter is a common alternative to peanut butter in nut-free environments, and is readily available in most grocery stores. Edamame (soybeans) and soy nuts (roasted soybeans) are rich in fiber and protein and are nut-free! A ¼ cup serving of soy nuts (coined “nut” because it’s crunchy once it’s baked) contains 11 grams of protein, while a ¼ cup serving of edamame provides 4 grams of protein. Baked chickpeas are available commercially or are easy to make, as well.

Turkey roll-ups are a favorite of mine. Use a whole grain tortilla, spread a layer of hummus, lettuce leaves, turkey, and I like the Sargento Ultra-Thin sliced cheese because it rolls easily. Roll them up and cut them in diagonals and wrap it in waxed paper. Instead of potato chips you can use sliced peppers strips, pickles, snap peas, or cucumber slices. I admit that I love a good potato chip with my sandwich, so I use the 40% reduced fat Cape Cod 100- calorie single packages. I also like the puffed vegetable strips. They don't add a lot of fiber but they do they are not fried so they are less fats.

Kids enjoy finger foods and anything quick to eat. Kabobs are an option for speed. Strand cubes of grilled chicken, mozzarella balls, tomato cherry tomatoes, pepper strips, and cucumbers on a stick. Hummus is a good dip option for this, as well. This combination is loaded with protein, calcium, vitamin C, and fiber. I just visited with a friend that served sliced cucumbers and topped them off with mango salsa. Delish!

Calcium is an important nutrient for bone health and it's especially important for kids. It's the time when the body stores calcium in the bones. Recommendations are: 1000 milligrams (mg) for children ages 4-8 years old and 1300 milligrams for children ages 9 to 18 years. A glass of cow’s milk has 300 mg. Most of the substitute milks are fortified with calcium and have approximately 300 mg in them. I also like the Adora chocolate disks that have 500 mg of calcium per disk. It also satisfies the kids’ sweet tooth. It’s always better to get calcium from foods versus supplements, but occasionally you'll get the picky eater that is allergic to dairy or just doesn't like it.

For dairy, consider mozzarella string cheese, Cabot’s individual packages of cheddar cheese or yogurt. Icelandic yogurt is becoming popular. Traditionally, it has less added sugars. Siggis has yogurt tubes kids will love. Freeze them ahead of time and toss them in a lunchbox and they will remain cold by the time the kids eat them hours later. Cottage cheese is the next marketing phenomenon. Akin to yogurt, you'll be seeing a lot more of single portions of cottage cheese mixed in with fruit on the supermarket shelves!

I’m a huge fan of dried fruits as snacks, as they are high in fiber and iron. Sunsweet Ones™ are individually wrapped prunes that can easily get tossed into lunch boxes and backpacks. Take it from me and just tell the kiddos that they are dried plums! They are great to eat with string cheese or Mini Babybels, known by its distinctive, red wax coating. It’s also very easy, and economical, to make a nut-free trail mix that can be portioned into snack bags. For example, mix together some sunflower or pumpkin seeds, raisins, toasted oat cereal, and dark chocolate chips.

Snacks like cut up fruits and vegetables or whole-grain crackers are a must. The original Triscuits are still my favorites because they don't have a lot of ingredients added to them. I always re-check the ingredient list to see what's been added to whole-grain products. Stay away from any hydrogenated ingredients, maltodextrin or polydextrose if you can. Always look for 100% whole grain as first ingredients versus enriched!

Young, active bodies need adequate hydration. Make sure your child is well hydrated before starting any physical activity. Drinking fluids throughout the day helps to combat losses, and while water is a good source of hydration, studies show that children drink 45-50% more liquid when it’s flavored. That includes all kinds of milk. Rich in protein and calcium, milk helps to build bones and repair cell tissues. Chocolate milk is especially a great beverage for kids to drink after a sports activity. Juice boxes are popular with kids but look for ones that say “100% fruit juice,” on their labels, as they are rich in Vitamin C, an antioxidant that helps to keep gums healthy. Calcium-fortified orange juice is another convenient way for children to get the bone-building nutrient if they have any milk allergies. Make a variety of beverages available but also be mindful about the portions and nutritional content of beverages offered to children.

So, as the summer winds down, and the wheels on the school buses roll round and round, make sure your children are not only well equipped with school supplies, but with the ABC’s of healthy foods... and save the sweets for treats!





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