If they want their children to eat healthier, the best thing parents can do is lead by example. “Just make sure they are able to make their own food choices—whether you’re eating out or having a family dinner at home,” says Emily Small, director of nutrition and facility manager at NutriFormance. “But always have plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables available to them.”
Small says she sees many school-aged children lacking in calcium, vitamin D and fiber. She says parents can correct the problem at the grocery store. “Always ask your kids what they want, and be aware of what they’re looking for,” she says. “Anything grab-and-go works well: string cheese, single-serve yogurt or milk for calcium; single-serve raw almonds or peanuts for protein; and apples, bananas and pears.” At home, Small advises keeping fresh fruits and vegetables visible—not hidden in a refrigerator drawer.
Keeping watch on what your child eats is especially important during the school week, beginning with breakfast. “It’s a must—whether it’s just a glass of milk and a granola bar, it’s essential to fuel their bodies,” Small says. For a solid breakfast, she suggests a piece of toast with peanut butter, an egg, fruit and milk. She also says to make sure children have snacks in their backpack to fuel them for the rest of the day.
Many schools also are stepping up their efforts when it comes to providing healthy choices for children. “The key word is ‘choices.’ With 470 students walking in our building each day, you get a wide variety of tastes,” says Whitfield School president Mark Anderson. “I’m a huge believer in feeding kids well—you must if you want them to think well.” At Whitfield, Anderson says a full-time, in-house food staff constantly looks for new and healthy choices. The school offers a salad and sandwich bar, whole wheat bread, and low-fat yogurt and milk, along with a ‘lighter choice’ lunch each day. This year, Whitfield began offering its students free fruit. “The fruit is distributed by our parent volunteers at the bookstore or cafe,” Anderson says. “The response from both students and parents has been overwhelmingly positive—it sends a message.”
Over the past several years, soda giants Coke and Pepsi have removed soft drinks that contain sugar from schools, leaving only diet soda and water in the vending machines. “It really dove-tailed nicely into what we’re trying to do,” Anderson notes. “We don’t need all that sugar—let’s get back to drinking water.”
In addition to providing healthier food items, schools like Whitfield are also implementing a more in-depth health curriculum. “We’re trying to provide students nutritional information and experience that they can take with them when they go into the college dorms,” Anderson says. Other issues, such as eating disorders, are also addressed. “There are kids who don’t eat well and those who overeat,” he says. “The key is getting kids to find the healthy ground.”