Healthy eating for kids & back to school tips

By Amanda Benson, RDN
Back to school tips for kids eating health packed lunch - Vitality

It’s difficult enough to know what to feed ourselves, never mind what to feed our kids (especially if you have picky eaters). I get it, as a parent to a 3 and 5-year-old mealtime can be a struggle and there’s so much pressure to raise healthy eaters – but it doesn’t have to be as hard as we sometimes make it!

Use the suggestions below to take the pressure off mealtime while still ensuring your child is getting the nourishment their body needs.

At home

As the parent or caregiver, your role is to offer a variety of nutritious foods (and fun foods) and not be a short order cook. Children are born knowing how to eat intuitively, meaning they eat according to their body’s internal cues. They know when they’re hungry and they know when they’re full, and we want to encourage them to listen to their body in this way! Of course, this means they also have likes and dislikes, but your job is not to force them to eat foods they don’t like – even the healthy foods.

In short, your role is to offer the foods at mealtime and your child’s role is to decide which foods to eat, and how much. Additionally…

  • No matter what you’re serving at the meal, make sure there is at least one or two items that you know your child likes. Serving them a meal of all unfamiliar foods will not go over well!
  • Stay consistent and continue offering new foods, even if your child has refused them in the past. It can take many exposures for them to have interest in trying a new food. Even if they touch, lick, or play with a new food, that’s a success in my book! Keep portions of new foods small so that its not too overwhelming and isn’t too wasteful (if they eat it and enjoy it, they can always have more).
  • Avoid telling your child that they can only have dessert if they finish their meal or eat X more bites. This holds dessert on a pedestal and encourages them to ignore their feelings of hunger and fullness. Instead, you could try offering dessert or a treat with the meal. It doesn’t have to be served with every meal (remember, as the parent you choose what’s served and what’s not). If its not being served on a given night and your child asks for it, you can simply say “we’re not having that tonight, but maybe another night!”
  • Don’t feel guilty for making convenience foods! Frozen chicken nuggets and macaroni and cheese are staples in my household (and yes, I’m a Registered Dietitian). I try my best to also serve fruits and vegetables with all meals to help round it out. Remember, you don’t have to feed your child only organic foods or perfectly balanced meals at every meal for them to be healthy!

At school

Summer is coming to an end so if that means back to school for your child, thinking about what they’ll eat for lunch can be an added layer of pressure and stress.

First, if your child will be eating the lunch provided by the school then rest assured knowing that school lunches are required to meet specific nutritional criteria. While at first glance these options may not always seem like the most nutritious choice, they are still providing your child with nourishment and energy. Also keep in mind, its only one meal out of the day! Additionally, for some kids, school lunches are available for free or at a reduced cost making it an excellent choice (or at times, the only choice).

If, however, you choose to pack a lunch for your child, here are some helpful tips:

  • Invest in a compartment style lunch box like this one (or similar). It allows you to serve a variety of foods while conveniently keeping them separate. The inner compartment is also dishwasher safe! For younger children, practice opening and closing the container in advance.
  • Get an insulated lunch box that allows you to add an ice pack. They also sell freezable lunch boxes with built in ice packs, like this one.
  • Have your child bring an insulated stainless steel water bottle as well. We love these options that allow you to personalize them, come in a variety of designs and sizes, are easy to clean and leak proof.
  • Pack lunch WITH your child (the night before if possible). When they have a say, and can help with the food prep, they’ll be more likely to eat what’s provided.
  • Include ideally each of the following (examples shown)
    • Carbohydrate – bread, crackers, tortilla
    • Protein/Fat – yogurt, cheese, turkey, nut butter*
    • Fruit/Vegetable – bell peppers, cucumbers, berries, grapes (halved for smaller children)
    • Treat – fruit snacks, chocolate chips, mini candy bar

*if your child attends a peanut free school, see if sunflower butter is allowed

For more healthy eating tips for kids, two of my favorite expert resources are Feeding Littles and Kids Eat in Color.

Amanda Benson is a Registered Dietitian and Wellness Strategy Manager with Vitality. She received her BS in nutrition at Michigan State University and completed her dietetic internship at the Medical University of South Carolina. When she’s not chasing around her two young children, she enjoys relaxing with a hot cup of coffee, running, attending concerts with her husband and wine nights with girlfriends.

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