Nutritious back-to-school meals
Planning children’s meals during the school week can be made simple when providing nutritious foods. Alicia Beltran, research dietitian at the USDA/ARS Children’s Nutrition Research Center at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital, maps out healthy meals and snacks to feed your child before, during and after school.
Protein fills you up for longer, so you should always include protein in your child’s breakfast. Eggs are a perfect and flexible meal that keep your child full, especially if you incorporate vegetables, which adds more fiber to the meal. Another simple morning meal is a quesadilla with chicken and cheese. Make this with a whole wheat flour or corn tortilla for more fiber and less fat. Serve this with a side of fruit and milk to give your child energy for school.
For a quick breakfast, you can give your child yogurt with fresh fruit and granola so they get their dairy and grains. You can also make them a fruit smoothie. According to Beltran, parents often serve their children orange juice, which is simple sugar since you are not incorporating the fiber of a fresh orange, and is not filling. Instead, make a fresh fruit smoothie with no added sugar to get more nutrients that will keep them full.
Make sure you always include protein, whether it’s baked or grilled chicken or low-sodium deli meat. For adequate dairy intake, pack cheese, yogurt or milk in your child’s lunch. Be careful when purchasing yogurt, as many of them contain added sugars. Fruit flavored yogurt also can double as dessert for the meal. It’s important to always include fresh fruit or vegetables in their lunch – preferably both. Talk to your child to learn which produce they prefer, and pack them for lunch daily.
Parents often choose easy meals over nutritious foods for their children’s lunches. Buying processed foods seems easier, but you spend more money purchasing this instead of taking time to prepare healthier meals for lunch. Beltran suggests making tuna or chicken salad with Greek yogurt instead of the traditional fatty mayo. Children can enjoy this in a sandwich with whole wheat bread or in a whole wheat wrap. You can also change it up and serve it with crackers.
“You can use the same protein in different recipes, depending on what your kid prefers.”
Avoid packing sports beverages or juices that are not 100 percent juice, since they contain added sugars. Chocolate milk should not be their main source of dairy for the meal, but can be packed as a dessert or treat. Pack plain milk for dairy. Children should drink water throughout the day. If they want flavor, try adding fresh orange slices or other fruits to their water. Make sure your child always has water and can refill their bottle at school.
“Add a little treat or note for dessert. It’s ok to pack a small cookie or piece of chocolate from time to time. Just choose wisely,” Beltran said.
Children should eat a snack after school to keep energized for homework and extracurricular activities. Beltran lists nutritional snacks that will keep kids full until dinner:
- Cheese sticks or string cheese
- Cut up fruits and vegetables
- Trail mix
- Plain popcorn
- Fruits they can easily peel, such as citrus like mandarins or cuties
- Carrots with hummus or low-fat ranch
- Small peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a small amount of jelly
Refrain from giving children sugary cereal, candy or other snacks that are high in sugar after school. These snacks will not fill them up or hold them over for dinner. They will grow hungry and cranky quickly.
“Plan ahead. Making lunch doesn’t have to be a nightmare,” Beltran explains. “Take your kid to the grocery store and involve them in the preparation. This makes it fun for them, and they will enjoy it more.”