Healthy Eating Habits for Kids

Add a nutritious lunch to your plans for the upcoming school yearLearners Who LunchWhile Teachers Feed Their Intellects, School Your Children in Proper Nutrition by Encouraging Healthy Eating Habits

By Ashley Kahn

Go ahead. Breathe that sigh of relief. After three months of summer play, it’s back to the books for Leon County schoolchildren. While pupils may protest, many parents are eager to resume the routine, confident their children will be provided education and companionship in a safe, nurturing environment.

While it’s comforting to know your kids are getting a hearty dose of reading, writing and ‘rithmetic, another essential part of the school day often is overlooked. A balanced lunch can be the difference between a fulfilling afternoon and a wasted one. By taking the time to foster your child’s growing appetite for food, you may help cultivate his or her hunger for knowledge.

But before choosing whether to pack a lunchbox or fund a cafeteria meal plan, it is your turn to learn. Here are some food facts parents can use to give students the nutrition they need to succeed in the classroom.

To pack or not to pack: That is the question. According to Amy Magnuson, health promotion director and nutritionist at Florida State University’s Thagard Student Health Center, there is no definitive advantage to a packed or purchased lunch.

“Either way can be healthy,” she said. “A parent’s responsibility is to provide a wide range of healthy foods. Set a good example, but ultimately let the child choose.”

Following her children’s choices, Michelle Manausa, a Tallahassee mother of three, packs lunches every day and is aware of the example she sets.

“I’m lucky because my kids love fruit and they always drink water, but they definitely ask for things I won’t pack,” she said. “Some people say they can’t pack fruit because their child will throw it away. They’ve got to get their kids trying healthy foods at home.”

Without parental guidance, a typical fourth-grader might make a meal out of chips, cookies and soda. While an excess of junk foods won’t provide proper nutrition, it’s OK to allow them in moderation.

“The main idea is that you don’t want to eat the same foods every single day, no matter what they are,” Magnuson said. “Even pizza and fries can fit into an overall healthy eating plan.”

Still, packing a healthy lunch can be a daunting task, often due to a lack of time or information.

“I know a lot of parents pack something convenient because they work,” Manausa said. “I respect that, but prepackaged foods are full of preservatives, chemicals and dyes. I just don’t think they realize what they’re giving their kids.”

Give your children what’s best for them by representing all of the basic food groups. A well-balanced lunch should include a source of protein, a grain, a dairy item, a fruit and a vegetable.

Keep in mind that a healthy diet is a balancing act. Indulging unwholesome cravings once in a while is fine as long as you generally adhere to more-nourishing foods.

Manausa, who packs a different lunch for each of her children, has mastered the art of moderation.

“Sometimes I get on a soapbox about what I feed my kids,” she said, “but I just balance it. They eat chips and fries, but fresh fruits and vegetables are really important.” She added that she recognizes the long-term benefits of healthy choices: “My kids have not been sick all year long, and I think it has a lot to do with our diet.”


Move Over, Sloppy Joe

Thanks to the establishment of a local wellness policy, a healthy diet also can be found in the lunch line. The policy, which includes components regulating nutrition, health education and physical activity in schools, represents a new trend in Leon County school cafeterias. A registered dietician helps develop menus for the hot lunches, certifying that each meal is nutritionally balanced.

Of course, there are the requisite chicken nuggets and corndogs, but even those foods have gotten a makeover.

“I slowly am convincing parents that our meals are not as bad as they think they are,” said Tim Tankersly, director of nutrition services for Leon County Schools. “Our chicken nuggets and hamburger patties have vegetable protein in them, which reduces the fat by 25 percent. The corndog we serve is a very healthy corndog. It’s low in fat, high in fiber, and uses whole-grain breading.”

Just don’t tell the kids their favorite treat is actually good for them. Statistics suggest students like what is being served up in schools. As Tankersly reveals, approximately half of students eat school lunches every day. The figure is nearly 90 percent in elementary school but drops in middle and high schools as more students bring lunch or go off campus in their junior and senior years.

So what are the main differences between grade levels? Is it all fast food for the older kids? Not according to Tankersly.

“We do very little of that,” he said.

In elementary schools, the hot lunch is a set menu with ice cream and cookies available on a limited basis. Middle schools add more drink choices, limited to Gatorade, water and fruit juice. High schools offer pizza, fried chicken sandwiches and, in rare cases, sodas, primarily to compete with students buying lunch off campus.

“Those are the only commercial products we bring in,” Tankersly said. “Everything else we fix ourselves.”

Rest assured that your children will be well fed if they purchase lunch at school.

“I’ve eaten lunch in the cafeteria with my daughter,” Magnuson said. “They really are trying to get in good foods.”

Tankersly went a step further.

“I raised three children, and the one thing I’ve learned since taking this job is I would never pack their lunch,” he said. “The food is good enough that they should eat it at school.”

While schools offer balanced meals, you do need to monitor what your children are eating outside of the cafeteria. A study published in the April 2007 issue of the American Journal of Public Health suggests that childhood obesity is not a result of eating school meals. On the contrary, it’s what they eat when they’re not in school that leads to problems with weight.

“Those 7-year-old kids do not drive themselves through the pick-up window at McDonald’s,” Tankersly said.

Exercise is equally important to maintaining good health.

“I strongly recommend physical activity,” said Magnuson, who advocates outdoor sports over video games.

Adds Manausa: “Kids always have an activity in the afternoon. Lunch is a huge meal for them to be able to pay attention during school and then go on to whatever they have the rest of the day.”


Brown Bags and Red Flags

Parents and school officials can make a strong impact on what children eat, but sometimes their encouragement isn’t enough. Negative images and comments from the media or peers can have a hurtful effect on a child’s body image and his or her attitude toward food.

“Patterns that can develop into eating disorders start as young as the age of 5,” Magnuson said. “Children start thinking maybe they need to diet because they’re hearing it everywhere.”

Indications your child may need help are constantly talking about food, obsessing about weight or showing clear signs of hunger but refusing to eat. If these behaviors become severe, seek the help of a physician, therapist or dietician who specializes in eating disorders.

Another problem can arise when children eat more than they should, particularly if the food they consume is unhealthy. If your child habitually makes poor choices, first examine your own eating habits. Then look to the language you associate with certain foods.

“We have to be aware of the messages we send our children,” Magnuson said. “For example, don’t say they can’t have dessert until they finish their broccoli.” This type of approach can damage the way a child regards food.

A better tactic is to encourage variety. When children are exposed to many different foods, they are more likely to acquire an array of healthy tastes. But don’t expect results overnight.

“It can take almost a dozen times for a child to see a new food before they will actually eat it and like it,” said Magnuson, who suggests masking novel with familiar by preparing a well-liked meal and incorporating only one new item.

Finally, make meal time a comfortable environment. If eating a healthy meal at home is a relaxing, enjoyable experience, a child will be more likely to want to eat nutritious foods at school.

“Sometimes as parents we become so concerned for our children’s health that we think we need to force things, and that’s not right,” Magnuson said. “If we provide a variety of foods and we set a good example, that’s all we can do.”

Follow these tips to keep your family healthy all year long. For more information about a balanced diet, visit American Dietetic Association’s Web site at

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