Eating Nutritional Foods Can Help Children Be At Their Best Academically

Thursday, August 23, 2007

The start of the school year also means the return of school lunches, and the choice of brown-bagging or eating in the cafeteria. A nutritionist at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center says that it may seem contrary to perception, but a lunch-from-home may be the better choice, nutritionally.

"Lunches served in school cafeterias are not always the best choice and I recommend that sometimes lunches need to be packed," says Mary Pat Alfaro, MS, RD, CNSD, education coordinator in Nutrition Therapy at Cincinnati Children's. "Although The Healthy School Lunch Campaign is urging schools to serve more balanced, lower fat meals, a packed lunch means the parents are in control of what children eat, including their portion size."

Nutrition is very important for school children, for many reasons. Multiple studies have shown that poor nutrition adversely effects school performance and overall achievement. Improving health and nutrition in undernourished children is correlated with less absenteeism, more grades completed and better performance on tests. Good nutrition also improves mental and behavioral performance. Eating well everyday is good insurance for parents that children arrive to school ready to learn.

Obesity not only impacts children's physical health but also psychosocial health. A study of self reported quality of life in children and adolescents showed significantly lower emotional, social and school functioning. Prevention and treatment of obesity is an important goal for improving mental and physical health for all children. Healthy eating and exercise are important means of treating and preventing obesity.

"So as we can see, the evidence for providing healthy foods for children can contribute to a better school year academically, physically and socially," says Alfaro.

Since finding healthy lunches that are also fun, safe and easy-to-make is a constant challenge, Alfaro says parents should:

Make It Healthy

  • Use the new Food Guide Pyramid to plan children's lunches. Include at least two servings from the bread group and one serving from each of the other food groups for a balanced meal. Remember to go easy on fats and sweets. Check out MyPlate.gov for more recommendations.
  • Go for variety to get different nutrients and beat boredom. Try bagels, English muffins, crackers, pita bread or tortillas paired with your favorite spread or sandwich filling.
  • Find healthy alternatives to snack chips. Trail mix, flavored rice cakes, pita chips and homemade tortilla chips can be made easily.
  • Pack fruit that is easy to eat. Grapes, strawberries, chunks of melon, apple wedges, berries and orange sections are all good choices. Include a toothpick and a dipping sauce made of yogurt or peanut butter for a mini-kabob.
  • Make raw vegetables such as baby carrots, celery and bell pepper strips more appealing and more likely to be eaten by packing them with a container of ranch dressing, hummus or salsa. Look for individual packages in the produce section.
  • Pay close attention to beverages. Drink choices can be overwhelming. Remember that even 100% fruit juice is loaded with sugar. Try plain or sugar-free flavored bottled water.
  • Experiment with different sandwich fillings. Top children's peanut butter with fruit such as raisins, apples, bananas or pineapple instead of the usual jelly. Roll up a tortilla topped with refried beans, salsa, grated cheese and chopped lettuce and tomatoes for a lunch box burrito.

Make It Safe

  • Wash your hands well with warm, soapy water before preparing a meal.
  • Use an insulated bag with a freezer pack to keep cold foods cold. Holding perishable foods at room temperature for longer than two hours allows bacteria to grow and could make the food unsafe to eat.
  • Freeze well-wrapped sandwiches at the beginning of the week or the night before. Pack them in the morning; they will be thawed by lunch. Good "freezers" include peanut butter, cheese spreads and cooked meats. Bad "freezers" are sandwiches made with mayonnaise, yogurt, raw vegetables and eggs.
  • Store your sandwich bread in the freezer. Using frozen bread to make your sandwich in the morning will help keep your sandwich filling cold until lunch.
  • Freeze juice boxes, water bottles or yogurt cartons. Wrap in foil and use as an ice pack in the lunch box.

Make It Fun

  • Involve your children in planning and preparing lunches. Provide some choices and let them decide what to pack that day. Let them help pack the lunch, especially items that can be packed the night before.
  • For younger children, cut sandwiches into various shapes using cookie cutters. Use smaller cutters to make a sandwich puzzle.
  • Make a homemade happy meal by including a little surprise toy, special note or sticker.
  • Make your own "lunchable" using a divided plastic container.

Make It Easy

  • Keep lunch-making supplies together in one place in the kitchen. Include lunch bags, sandwich bags, thermoses, storage containers, plastic silver wear and any special food items such as individual cans of fruit or granola bars.
  • Pack your children's lunches the night before so you can avoid that early morning rush.
  • Write down lunch menu ideas for the week and post it in the kitchen. After planning three to four weeks worth you can rotate the menus throughout the year.

When Buying Lunch Is Inevitable

  • Encourage your child to choose low fat white milk or water to drink. Calories and sugar in chocolate milk, juices and pop add up quickly.
  • When school lunch menus are printed in advance, help children decide on a balanced lunch before leaving the house.
  • Encourage children to choose green vegetables and fruits with the entrée. Pizza and chicken fingers are okay occasionally as long as they are balanced.

Cincinnati Children's, one of the top five children's hospitals in the nation according to Child magazine, is a 475-bed institution devoted to bringing the world the joy of healthier kids. Cincinnati Children's is dedicated to providing care that is timely, efficient, effective, family-centered, equitable and safe. For its efforts to transform the way health care is provided, Cincinnati Children's received the 2006 American Hospital Association-McKesson Quest for Quality Prize". Cincinnati Children's ranks second nationally among all pediatric centers in research grants from the National Institutes of Health and is a teaching affiliate of the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. The Cincinnati Children's vision is to be the leader in improving child health.

Contact Information

Danielle Lewis, 513-636-9473, danielle.lewis1@cchmc.org