It’s back-to-school time, which can come as a bittersweet relief for both parents and kids to get back to a scheduled routine. Knowing that your kids are productively learning throughout the day at school is part of that relief, but wondering how their healthy habits stand up throughout that day is another concern. You want to make sure you’re instilling those healthy habits for your kids to take with them, as well as healthy and nutritious food to power them through their day. If you are that school-kid yourself, ensuring that you’re setting yourself up with a healthy and balanced learning environment and nutrition is one of the most important tools you can give yourself.
Breakfast – It really is the most important meal of the day, especially to fuel the kids with enough energy to power through the day and keep their attention span on the subjects needed. Research has shown that students who eat breakfast experience improved cognitive performance, visual perception, and short-term memory compared to students who do not eat breakfast. Research has also shown that students who are well nourished are more likely to get along with their peers and less likely to be suspended from school. Students who eat breakfast report feeling more motivated at school than students who do not eat breakfast.
With all that said, the nutrition value of the breakfast is what’s most important. Loading the kids up with sugary cereals or pastry items will just set them up for a major sugar-crash mid-morning, which will leave their heads drooping at their desks. Just like adults, kids need nutritious whole grains with fiber (whole grain toast and English muffins, oatmeal, etc.), along with some protein (nut butter, yogurt, eggs, etc.). Nut butter – like peanut or almond butter (as long as allergies aren’t an issue) – is a great healthy fat that also includes protein and will keep them satisfied and their brain fully functioning longer.
Lunch – This mid-day meal is needed to keep up their energy, especially when the afternoon drowsiness takes effect. If their school lunch program prepares nutritious meals filled with healthy protein, grains, vegetables and fruit, then be thankful. If you don’t know the quality and would rather be assured that your child is getting this sort of nutrition, send a lunch with them. However, make sure you’re packing food that they’ll eat – if they hate broccoli, don’t pack it expecting that they will eat it because it’s their only option. Chances are that they’ll barter for their friends’ treats at the lunch table and your kiddo may only be eating fruit snacks and cookies for lunch.
After School Snack – Meeting your child at the door with a plate of cookies and glass of milk isn’t exactly the nutritious snack they need, but they will be hungry and exhausted after a full day of school. Whether you can be the person that meets them at that door when they come home or not, be sure you have healthy snacks available and easily accessible for them. Cut-up fruits or veggies and a healthy yogurt or hummus dip would be a perfect snack that will conquer that hunger and keep them satisfied until dinner. If your child attends an after-school program or care, check out what sort of snacks they provide. If it’s something you’re not particularly pleased with, ask if you can provide the snack for your child, or offer ideas on how they can make improvements.
Healthy Habits – Along with healthy nutrition, instilling a healthy lifestyle and habits in your children at a young age will set them up for their future. After an exhaustive day at school, they will need some unwinding personal time, so if they have homework completed and choose to watch TV or play computer or video games, limit it to 30 minutes. Since they’ve been mostly seated throughout the day at school, encourage them to get fresh air outside by taking the family dog for a walk, playing with the neighbor kids outside, riding a bike, or unwinding with music and dancing. Instill these active activities into them so when they come up with their own ideas, it’ll be something along these lines.
Breakfast – Breakfast still remains important, however, with high-schoolers, you never know what to expect. With early morning sport practices or club meetings, breakfast will easily be bypassed first thing, but that mid-morning hunger and drooping energy will likely be fixed by whatever they can find – healthy or not.
Easy out-the-door breakfasts are best for this age, and these could range from an easy microwave-poached egg with cheese, a simple peanut butter on whole-grain toast or half-bagel, or grabbing a Greek yogurt going out the door. If they find themselves needing something mid-morning, have nutritious granola bars (not the sugar-loaded, candy-bar type) in their bags or lockers.
Lunch – This depends on the school policy and individual as to whether they’ll eat what the lunch provides, want to bring their own lunch, or if the school allows the students to leave campus. Whichever way, the high-schooler is most likely making the decision on what they will eat, so instilling healthy nutrition early-on will show up in their decision. If they’re packing a lunch, make sure they understand a balanced, whole-food approach. If they can leave campus, ensure they understand healthy options for quick-food restaurants, or if they’re close to home, that they have something they could easily make for their time allowance.
Snacks – Between school and activities, teen-agers will have an appetite, and just like with little tykes, have something on hand that’s nutritious that they can prepare themselves. Fresh fruit, veggies, cheese or yogurt, whole grain crackers and hummus, or air-popped popcorn are all good snacking options.
Healthy Habits – Whether you have a high-schooler, or you are the high-schooler, teen-agers need to know the importance of healthy nutrition and habits, and need to be taking charge of their own health and making these decisions. As a parent, you still need to guide their decisions, or help make these options accessible for them by buying nutritious, healthy food and offering options for healthy activities and habits. Extra-curricular sports or other activities to keep this age active are most important, as this is the time that a sedentary lifestyle can begin.
Breakfast – Kegs and eggs may sound like it covers the food groups, but it doesn’t and keeping with a healthy eating plan and nutrition is most important now with rigorous school work and other demands during this time. Class and work schedules can be difficult, but by sticking with a nutritious and quick breakfast (see above for ideas), you won’t succumb to the glorious smells of the cinnamon rolls at the student union.
Lunch – Whether you can make it back to you own place or have to catch something on campus, be sure you’re filling up with whole, nutritious food items first. If you’re in the cafeteria, stop by the salad bar first thing for a plate chock-full of veggies before heading to the pizza corner, or better yet, skip the pizza altogether.
Snacks – Being at campus all day, or making it from class directly to work, can really throw a wrench in your eating schedule, and by that time, you’re starving. Make sure you carry nutritious bars, nuts, or fruit with you for those emergency snacking situations, or drop by your place or a convenient stop for a healthy snack like low-fat, low sugar yogurt or cheese. And be sure to drink plenty of water by carrying a water bottle around with you.
Late Night Meal – Yes, with college schedules and studying until morning hours, that third meal can easily sneak in. However, instead of making it to the highly-marketed drive-thrus during this time, have small and healthy snack options ready. Again, fruit, nuts or yogurt are great if you’re really hungry but not wanting to overfill, or air-popped popcorn is a light, whole-grain and low-fat snack if you’re just wanting a snack to munch on. Remember that late-night snacking and eating isn’t optimal for your digestive system, metabolism, or sleep, but in college, it does sometimes happen.
Healthy Habits – Again, schedules can be hectic during college, but finding balance is extremely important for your health and productiveness. Taking some time out during the day to get some exercise in while on campus at the recreation center or a quick run outside will help in numerous ways and keep your body healthy and weight in check. Also, look for rec-leagues that you would be interested in joining to meet new friends and keep your activity levels up. College is a time to prepare for how you want to live as an adult on your own, so this is your time to try new activities and decide what sort of healthy lifestyle you want to take on.
Compiled using the following sources:
Rena Roark, CHC, CPFT, is a Certified Health Coach and Certified Personal Fitness Trainer and owner of Charge Up Health and Fitness, LLC. She works with individuals and group clients as a health and fitness coach to offer support and guidance for their health goals through a holistic look at their lives, helping to find balance between exercise, diet, career, and relationships. Providing accountability and motivation, she can help reduce stress, increase energy and self-confidence, and ultimately help individuals work towards the best version of them.
Please be aware that this article is not a diagnosis, prescription or recommendation for any individual. Before starting food and/or exercise programs, or using any vitamin or supplement, you should always talk it over with your doctor. He or she may have specific recommendations or warnings depending on your health and the other medicines you take.