Back-to-school health tips: Eating well at school

Back-to-school time may mean a break from 24-hour parenting, but are you worried about your child’s eating habits now that you can’t keep an eye on what she’s eating at school?

David Ludwig, MD, PhD, director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center Boston Children’s Hospital recently spoke to Boston.com about quick and easy steps parents can take to pack healthy snacks and school lunches for children. Here are a few of the key points:

Homemade is almost always healthier

School lunch may never have had a great reputation as far as nutrition goes, and things have only gotten worse over the years. Even when you discount obviously unhealthy choices like pizza and fries, hidden salt, artificial flavors and preservatives can tarnish even healthy options provided by many schools. “Almost anything a parent could provide will likely be better than what is served at school,” Ludwig said. “Encouragingly, some districts are aiming to improve the quality of school lunches through collaborations with local farmers, for example.”

Leftovers may get a bad rap, but with minimal effort they can often be turned into a quality lunch the following day.

“Lunches at our house usually involve some variant of what we had for dinner the night before,” Ludwig said. “Adding one new ingredient can make it seem like a whole new meal without much extra time in food preparation.”

A new take on an old favorite

PB&J has been a school lunch standard for decades. It’s a classic for a reason—kids love it. But when made with the wrong ingredients a peanut butter and jelly sandwich offers little more than empty calories. Ludwig suggests tweaking the ingredients to boost the nutritional value of the sandwich. “Use whole grain bread, trans-fat free peanut butter and how about using a 100 percent fruit spread instead of that sugary jelly,” he said. Apple slices can also be included for extra nutritional value.

“Water” your kids drinking at school?

In elementary school science classes your child will learn that the surface of the earth and the human body are both mostly made up of water. Their beverage options while at school should be the same. “Water really needs to be the main beverage for children.” Ludwig says.

If water is deemed too boring by your child, try adding a twist of lemon or lime. In the morning try offering your child tea with a dash of honey, which still has much less sugar than the six or eight teaspoons found in cola or fruit drinks. “Chocolate milk is also a big problem,” Ludwig said. “Of course kids will prefer sugary milk to plain, but why provide that option if you don’t have to?”

Don’t fear all fats

Not all fats are unhealthy. Fats found in olive oil, avocado and nuts are among healthiest nutrients we can eat. And they don’t promote obesity. Plus, a low-glycemic diet that includes healthy fats can help kids stay full longer, which helps reduce gorging in late-afternoon. Adding avocado or guacamole as a spread on a sandwich is a great way to dress up a sandwich with good fats.

Use “stealth health” if you have to

Your child may have convinced herself that she hates certain good-for-you-foods. Rather than fighting—which can create unhealthy tension between you and your child around eating—a little subterfuge may be OK.

“There are many ways to use ‘stealth health,'” Ludwig said. “Most kid likes pasta, so add pureed spinach or zucchini into the tomato sauce. They won’t even recognize that they’re eating vegetables.”

Keep the kids involved

Because of their busy class and activity schedules, many students may feel like they don’t have much say in how their days are spent. Empower them by letting them play a key role in deciding what they’ll eat during lunch and snack time.

“There’s a simple rule: if kids help select it or cook it, they’ll eat it,” Ludwig said. “Give them a choice and involve them, but guide their choices We live in a fast food culture that tries to get everyone—especially children—to eat the lowest quality, highest calorie foods. Without guidance, kids are more likely to make bad choices.”

Snack healthy

Kids who come home from school very hungry are likely to eat more than they need when they first get in the door, so encourage them to eat a healthy snack between meals so they’ll be less likely to gorge after school.

“The worst time to make good decisions about food is when you’re starving,” says Ludwig. “Children who eat a poor quality breakfast or lunch may give in to temptation at school or on their walk home.” A handful of nuts, dried fruit, high quality trail mixes, or an apple and cheese all make healthy, easy to carry snacks to help your child ward off hunger mid-day.

Read the school lunch menu together

For many parents, sending the kids to school with homemade snacks and lunches just isn’t an option. In these situations, Ludwig suggests parents and kids sit down and review the school’s lunch menu (often found online) to identify the healthy choices and to steer clear of unhealthy ones. Doing it together lets the child feel more involved in his food choices, and will teach him how to make healthy choices even if you’re not with him.

To learn more about. Ludwig’s research in childhood obesity, see these blogs:

Food for thought: David Ludwig and the war against childhood obesity

Are all calories created equal?

Do low-carb diets work for kids?

Boston Children’s hosts expert panel to discuss USDA dietary recommendations