Parents wouldn't send their children to school without their pencils and notebooks, and they shouldn't send them off to school without a nutritious breakfast either, according to an expert at Baylor College of Medicine.
"A healthy breakfast is important for several reasons," said Dr. Teresia O'Connor, assistant professor of pediatrics at the USDA/ARS Children's Nutrition Research Center at BCM and pediatrician at Texas Children's Hospital.
Research has shown that children who eat a nutritious breakfast in the morning have an easier time focusing on their schoolwork since they are not distracted by hunger, according to O'Connor. In addition, skipping breakfast can increase the risk of weight problems.
Incorporate food groups
She suggests incorporating multiple food groups in the morning to ensure children are eating a healthy breakfast. This includes whole grains, which help you stay fuller for longer. Examples of good whole grain breakfast foods include oatmeal, whole wheat toast and whole grain cereals.
Breakfast is also a good time to eat fruit, said O'Connor. Although 100 percent juice can count toward a serving of fruit, whole fruit provides dietary fiber, which is a part of a healthy diet and can help prevent heart disease and cancer.
Many schools now have free breakfast programs. O'Connor suggests that parents talk to their children about whether they would prefer to eat breakfast at home or at school and decide what would be best for the family. The important thing is to be sure that children eat one healthy breakfast everyday and not two breakfasts, which adds additional calories.
Get children involved in choosing lunch
When it comes to packing a lunch, O'Connor suggests setting expectations for what can be packed. This could mean that parents and children agree to pack a sandwich, fruit, vegetable and drink each day, but have children pick out which fruit or vegetable they want to include in the lunch. Be sure to use a cool pack when packing a lunch that includes cooked meats or dairy to ensure they are safe for eating, said O'Connor.
If children are buying lunch at school, O'Connor suggests talking to children about what they are eating.
"It is good to encourage children to eat a variety of different foods, including lots of fruits and vegetables because different types of foods provide different types of nutrition," she said.
Parents can help by being to be aware of what foods their children are eating throughout the day and week and making fruits and vegetables available and ready to eat.
It's also important to teach children that treats can be a part of a healthy, balanced diet, but in moderation, said O'Connor. Parents and children can talk about which day of the week they want to include a treat in their lunch. Small treats are OK now and then, but not on a daily basis. O'Connor suggests that parents also check with their schools because many have restrictions as to what treats students are allowed to bring to school.
Making sure children are eating nutritious foods is important because eating healthy keeps the body healthy, said O'Connor. Healthy foods, such as fruits and vegetables, reduce the risk of some diseases and give the body energy and what it needs to grow in a healthy way.
Get into a routine
O'Connor also suggests getting children into a regular schedule a few weeks before school starts. This includes a regular sleep and meal schedule. Sleep is key in helping children focus in school, but is also important for maintaining a healthy weight.
Make time for exercise
Children need time to burn off the calories they consume during the day, and this can be done by playing actively indoors or outdoors. O'Connor reminds parents that being healthy includes not just what you eat but also the amount of physical activity you do.