Back to school provides opportunity for healthy eating | Total Health

This time of year, parents scramble to buy pencils, notebooks and binders. But one of the most important supplies parents will buy this school year could be a lunch box.

Nutrition is important to children’s development as well as to their academic success, according to nutritionists. Teachers provide an education, schools provide breakfast and lunch; but it is ultimately up to parents to establish healthy eating habits.

In many cases, children catch the bus early and have a late lunch period. If a child eats a snack at 7 the night before, then does not eat breakfast, that child may not eat or drink for 17 hours. The resulting dehydration and low caloric intake can cause headaches, fatigue and inability to focus.

Melissa Pintar, RD, LDN, who works as a nutritionist with Valleybrook Pilates in Peters Township, stressed the importance of hydration. Drinking water or healthy beverages helps to flush out toxins and stimulate blood flow, which can help improve mental clarity and concentration. Proper hydration maintains health at a cellular level, and assists with metabolism, food digestion and bowel regulation.

It is as important to drink in the morning, and throughout the day, as it is to eat, she said.

Water is always the best choice when it comes to beverages. Since many children and adults do not enjoy drinking water, and flavored bottled waters are often expensive and not necessarily healthy, Pintar recommends making homemade flavored water by slicing fresh fruits and veggies to add to it. This makes the water more interesting for kids, and definitely more flavorful. Some suggestions include blueberries and fresh basil; strawberry, cucumber, and mint; orange slices and pineapple; or apples and cinnamon sticks.


Melissa Pintar

Melissa Pintar

Breakfast is another important aspect in children’s nutrition.

“Breakfast is fuel for the whole day,” said Scott Anderson of Anderson Chiropractic in McMurray.

Anderson suggests a bowl of cereal or oatmeal and a piece of fruit for busy mornings. Complex carbohydrates fuel the body and provide energy. Packets of oatmeal with added fruit is better than no breakfast at all or filling up with sugary cereals and processed food. He added that drinking a smoothie made with fruits and vegetables is a good alternative for hurried mornings. Smoothies can be prepared the night before to save time.

Pintar suggests a healthy breakfast such as greek yogurt, whole grain granola and cherries, or whole wheat toast with nut butter. She explained there are many healthy options that are also quick and easy, and that students and parents who do not have a lot of time to prepare foods in the morning can still make healthy choices.

Skipping breakfast is harmful to the body, but eating a breakfast consisting of too much sugar or of processed foods is a problem, too. Anderson said that too much sugar can put the body into a diabetic state, and warns long-term, increased sugar consumption can increase the risk of diabetes and certain cancers. Pintar says to avoid sugary cereals, processed fruit cups in heavy syrup and other processed foods that provide little nutritional value.

Lunchtime also can be difficult for children. Lunch is often the only time for socialization, and many children choose to skip lunch, or complain they don’t have time to eat lunch during short lunch periods. Packing a lunch is often the best way to encourage a child to eat healthy. Schools are improving the nutritional quality of meals, but children may only eat one or two items or nothing at all. Some schools also have snack options consisting of slushies, chips and other unhealthy foods.

Anderson suggests planning ahead, even preparing lunches for the week to save time during the hectic work week. Packing your child a couple pieces of fruit, like an apple and a banana, is better than skipping a meal or consuming processed foods high in sugar and unhealthy fats. Pintar said that packing lunches also allows parents to control portion sizes as well as the types of foods and quality of foods children may eat.

“I tell my clients to avoid anything that comes in a bag,” Anderson said, explaining that foods with a long shelf life are not really food.

He suggests carefully reading the ingredients. If the first ingredient is not indicative of the product you are buying, or if you can’t pronounce the ingredients, don’t buy it. Anderson said it is best to shop around the outside perimeter of the grocery store, where the real food is typically found, and to avoid the candy, chip and cookie aisles.



Holly Tonini/Observer-Reporter

Students can choose a salad and vegetables at Washington High School.

Pintar suggests when purchasing whole wheat breads, to make sure that servings contain at least three grams of fiber and that the first ingredient is whole wheat flour.

“Parents are a role model for healthy choices, and should be careful about what they eat, especially in front of children,” Pintar said. “Parents should begin introducing healthy foods at a very young age. Children should be exposed to a variety of healthy foods with different tastes and textures. This allows them to be open to trying new foods later on.”

Pintar warns that although parents should limit unhealthy foods, they should avoid being too rigid. For example, children might eat more vegetables if served with a small amount of vegetable dip.

Parents can start a dialog about healthy and unhealthy foods, and explain the benefits of healthy eating from a very young age. Continually providing positive affirmations about good food, like the benefits of increased energy and better sleep, will help children learn healthy habits that will continue through adulthood.

Getting your child involved helps teach them healthy choices. Children will realize that eating better makes them feel better, but often not until bad habits are already formed.

Anderson suggests parents give children choices within healthy contexts. Anderson says that the food we put in our bodies is either medicinal or poison. Growing children enjoy having control over what they eat, so Anderson suggests buying several types of fruits and allow children to choose which ones go in the lunch box. Pintar says parents can make healthy eating fun. For example, younger children can make banana boats by slicing lengthwise and adding peanut butter and fruit.

Older children can help plan menus, grocery shop and even prepare meals. Pintar and Anderson stressed the importance of buying quality food. Check the labels, as they are often misleading. Both emphasized that children, and adults, should avoid energy drinks and high-sugar beverages. Eating good quality food and getting adequate sleep will provide the energy needed to get through the day’s activities.