This week the Institute of Medicine released its recommendations to update the National School Lunch Program. The proposed changes aim to make lunches more nutritious and less fattening. These “common sense” changes have real potential to change the eating behavior of children. Specifically the recommendations advise:
- Replace whole milk with 1% or skim milk.
- Half of all grains must be whole grains.
- Decrease the amount of starchy vegetables, such as potatoes.
- Increase the vegetable/fruit servings to ¾ - 1cup vegetables plus ½ - 1 cup fruit per day.
Additionally, the recommendations address total calories and suggest that lunches contain no more than:
- 650 calories for children in kindergarten through grade 5.
- 700 calories for grades 6 through 8.
- 850 calories for freshmen through seniors in high school.
The changes will not fix the problem of steadily increasing childhood obesity overnight but, potentially, will elevate the quality of children’s diets. Childhood and the teenage years represent growth periods for body and mind; optimal nutrition supplies the building blocks for growth.
Eating well helps children learn
Just as athletes require optimal nutrition for top performance in sports, children need a healthy diet to succeed in school. Lean protein provides building blocks for all bodily processes, fresh vegetables and fruit supply vitamins, minerals and important bioactive plant compounds, and whole grains contain vitamins and minerals and dietary fiber.
Children need a good breakfast. A recent study found that the regular habit of eating breakfast as opposed to irregular consumption or skipping breakfast altogether improved attention, memory, and academic achievement.1 Artificially colored sugary cereals, heavily marked to children, provide no nutrition benefit. Do you know that studies have implicated food colorings and preservatives with impaired learning ability? A Lancet study found that artificial colors and preservative in the diet increase hyperactivity and decrease attention span in children.2 Instead, build breakfast around protein to stay satisfied all morning. Breakfast protein is important for children because protein is digested slowly, preventing hunger before lunch time. Good breakfast protein sources are: skim or low fat milk, yogurt, eggs, cheese, turkey bacon, and organic chicken sausage. Every child I’ve met enjoys a breakfast smoothie; it is just a healthier version of a milk shake, using low fat yogurt, skim milk, ½ banana, ice and berries, whirled together in the blender. They can easily make it themselves! For teens and children, my ready-to-drink Everyday Nutrition shakes are another healthy option.
Lunch Strategies Lunch can be at crazy times, because of cafeteria scheduling, some students have lunch at 10:30 am! School lunch fare can be suboptimal. Here, you must have a plan! The problem with cafeteria food often it is prepared off-site, and just reheated at school. Because the double-cooking usually involves oil, the fat within the food is sky high. Encourage your children to:
- Visit the salad bar, if there is one.
- Drink a glass of low fat milk. A recent study of college students found low-fat dairy intake to be associated with better diet quality and healthier weights.3
Growing up, I carried a box lunch to school daily. If your child’s cafeteria leaves something to be desired, a box lunch is the right solution. Lunch box ideas: Thermos with hot soup, sandwich with whole grain bread, turkey, tomato, avocado and spinach, a small bag of edamame or cut-up raw vegetables, a piece of fruit and a bottle of water.
Snack Time After a tiring day at school your child needs a nutritional snack.Snack ideas are: a mini whole wheat quesadilla with grilled vegetables and low fat cheese, open-face grilled cheese with tomato on whole wheat, a cup of soup, baby carrots with peanut butter dips, cubed cheddar with granny smith apple, popcorn, and fresh fruit. Include a glass of milk.
Children require guidance in choosing the best foods, just as they do in other areas of their lives. We all want to see our children grow strong in body and mind; a healthy diet provides the foundation. And, by eating well, they just might make the honor roll!
1 Indian Pediatrics, Oct. 2009, 45(10):824-8.
2 Lancet, Nov.2007, 370(9598): 1560-1567.
3 Journal of the American Dietetic Association, Aug. 2009, 109(8): 1433-8.