Leia Kedem: Thinking outside the (lunch) box

Leia Kedem: Thinking outside the (lunch) box

Summer is rapidly coming to a close, and kids are dreading a return to school. If you're a parent, you may be dreading their return as well.

It can be a daily struggle to pack lunches and make sure they have had something to eat before they dash out the door.

Although any breakfast is better than no breakfast, that extra effort to make it healthy might help your kids do better in school. Studies show that kids who eat a balanced breakfast have higher test scores and can concentrate better and solve problems more easily in class.

Children with healthier diets might also have fewer behavioral problems. Hunger can cause discomfort, crankiness and outbursts in even the best-behaved kids.

The nutritional value of meals can also make a difference. A breakfast low in fiber and protein, like sugary toaster pastries, can lead to a midmorning energy crash. This is because the carbohydrates are digested and absorbed quickly, causing blood sugar levels to dive after an initial spike. Other than sudden fatigue, kids might also experience headaches and irritability.

In contrast, a high-protein/high-fiber meal of scrambled eggs on a whole wheat English muffins will digest more slowly, preventing hunger and keeping blood sugar levels on an even keel.

Of course, this extends to lunch, dinner and snacks as well. Eating right throughout the day will improve behavior both at home and at school. Kids will concentrate better both in the classroom and at the kitchen table when it's time for homework.

So, how do you get kids used to eating healthier? The key is to get them involved, whether it's picking out fruit at the supermarket or packing lunch together the night before.

Having kids make their own choices helps them feel empowered and can make eating right less of a struggle. Whether it's at a meal or snack time, have a variety of healthy options to choose from. For example, have kids choose from carrots, celery or broccoli for a snack and whether they'd like ranch or Italian dressing for dipping.

Kids will also be more likely to eat healthy when food is made fun. Make a rotating breakfast bar with oatmeal and toppings one day, or yogurt with cut-up fruits, sliced nuts and granola the next.

Think outside the box when it comes to the lunch box. For younger kids, use cookie cutters to make fun shapes out of fruits like apples and melon or even make standard peanut butter and jelly sandwiches more exciting.

For kids of all ages, deconstruct typical favorites into finger food. For example, pack whole-grain crackers, tuna, grape tomatoes, and cheese cubes in a divided plastic container instead of a tuna and cheese sandwich.

When it comes to dinner, let kids be involved in the planning. Make it a family activity to find new healthy meal ideas on recipe sites. For the more visual child, scroll through pictures of healthy recipes on social media websites like Pinterest. Brainstorm new ways of preparing old favorites, or pick an exotic vegetable to try each week.

Getting kids into the habit of cooking and eating well will set them up for success at school as well as later in life. Make good nutrition part of the back-to-school routine this year to kick off the academic year on the right foot — and to have a healthier and happier family all year round.

Leia Kedem is a nutrition and wellness educator with the University of Illinois Extension, serving Champaign, Ford, Iroquois and Vermilion counties. Contact her at 333-7672 or at lweston2@illinois.edu.

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