Healthy Food Choices for Your School-Age ChildLast updated: Aug 01, 2018
Our children’s food choices play an important role not only in their current and future health, but also in their cognitive development, energy levels, and ability to focus at school. Yet the 2010 Dietary Guidelines note that children consistently do not consume enough calcium, vitamin D and potassium and at the same time eat too many solid fats, added sugars, and sodium that play a role in obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.1
Use these 8 easy tips to improve your children’s food choices to help them learn lifelong healthy eating habits as well as support energy levels and learning at school.
- Start the day with a balanced breakfast to make sure your children are ready to learn. A study in Wales in children age 9-11 found a significant association between eating a balanced breakfast with academic performance.2 Research consistently shows that skipping breakfast is associated with obesity, which has a strong impact on developing chronic health diseases such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes. In addition, children who eat a balanced breakfast tend to consume more essential vitamins and minerals crucial for physical and mental growth and development.3 A balanced breakfast contains fruit and or vegetables, protein foods (yogurt, eggs, nuts or nut butter, chicken, fish, lean red meat, tofu), and whole grains.4 Quick and easy breakfast ideas include a whole wheat tortilla spread with nut butter and sliced banana; a homemade smoothie with your favorite milk (dairy, soy, rice, or almond), fruit and a handful of leafy greens like spinach or kale; or scramble eggs with vegetables like chopped tomato and peppers.
- Lunch is another important opportunity for children to consume a variety of nutrient-dense foods. The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) established in 1946 provides nutritionally balanced free or low-cost meals to students in public and private schools. All NSLP lunches must meet Federal nutrition requirements, although each individual school chooses the specific foods to serve.5 In 2012 the nutrition standards for the NSLP were updated to reflect current science, requiring most schools to increase the availability of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fat-free and low-fat fluid milk; reduce the levels of sodium, saturated fat and trans-fat; and meet the nutrition needs of school children within their calorie requirements.6 A 2017 study observed children in the second grade from seven schools in a large suburban school district on three separate days. The researchers found that compared to children who ate school lunch, children with a lunch brought from home were significantly less likely to have fruits, vegetables, and dairy and were more likely to have snacks high in sugar and/or fat and non-100% fruit juice/fruit drink high in added sugars than children who ate the school lunch.7 If you pack your child’s lunch, be sure to include nutrient-dense foods including fresh or unsweetened canned fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat protein sources. Use small containers to keep individual foods separate, freeze a 100% juice box and pack in the lunchbox to keep the other foods cool until lunchtime, or include frozen vegetables that will thaw out by lunchtime and are perfect with your child’s favorite dip.
- Children today snack at least three times per day, with more than 27% of their total calories coming from snacks. Desserts and sweetened beverages are the major source of calories for children’s snacks and provide essentially no important vitamins or minerals necessary for good health.1 Savvy parents model healthy snacking and also encourage their children to build snacks around fruit, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy such as an apple with a slice of low-fat cheese, raw vegetables with hummus, or no-sugar added applesauce with whole grain crackers.
- Plan meals and snacks around nutrient-dense foods that contain important vitamins and minerals instead of highly processed foods that typically add more sugar, fat, and/or sodium to the food.1 For example, pack a lunch with a sandwich on whole grain bread, raw vegetables and dip, and fresh fruit instead of a pre-packaged lunch meal. Or make pizza at home using whole grain pizza dough from the grocery store and add grated cheese and vegetables. Instead of using a boxed flavored rice, pasta or potato mix, make your own using brown rice, whole grain pasta, or unpeeled potatoes with herb seasoning. Start your child’s day with nutrient-dense foods like plain oatmeal sweetened with cinnamon and fruit, cottage cheese and fruit, or a turkey sandwich on whole grain bread with lettuce and tomato instead of toaster pastries or sweetened breakfast cereal.
- Include foods that are good sources of calcium, vitamin D and potassium which are often low in our children’s food choices.1 Milk, yogurt, and fortified non-dairy milks like soy, almond, and rice milk are good sources of both calcium and vitamin D. Calcium is important for strong bones and teeth, while vitamin D plays a number of essential roles in health including optimal neuromuscular and immune function.8,9 Potassium is present in every cell in our body and is required for normal cell function as well as maintaining a healthy blood pressure. Fruit, vegetables and dairy products like milk and yogurt are excellent sources of potassium.10 Avoid brightly colored yogurt with candy or crushed cookies marketed to children, and instead make nutrient-dense yogurt parfaits by layering plain yogurt with fruit and granola.
- Offer foods high in fiber for a healthy digestive system and to prevent constipation, and to help reduce risk of developing type 2 diabetes and obesity. Fiber is the part of plant foods that our bodies do not completely digest, and is found in whole grains, legumes, fruit and vegetables. National surveys routinely show that children consume less than one-half of the recommended amount of fiber. A simple way to calculate your child’s fiber needs is “age +5”. For example, a 6-year-old needs 11 grams of fiber each day, while a 12-year-old needs 17 grams of fiber each day.11 Include fruit and/or vegetables with all meals and snacks and offer whole grains instead of processed white grains (think brown rice, quinoa, whole grain bread or whole wheat pasta) to meet your child’s fiber needs.
- Plan to eat as many meals as possible together as a family. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, children who eat meals with their families have a higher quality diet and are also more likely to be at a healthy body weight.1 Set aside a few nights each week for dinner together or make a special weekend breakfast or lunch where everyone eats together. Even though weekday mornings can be hectic, starting the day with everyone eating breakfast, even if it’s a simple breakfast like overnight oatmeal with fruit, or prep breakfast the night before with hard-boiled eggs and leftover salad or cooked vegetables that everyone can enjoy.
- Involving your children in planning and preparing meals improves their self-confidence and food choices. One small study of 47 children ages 6-10 years showed that children ate more vegetables and protein foods in meals that they prepared with their parents vs meals that the parents prepared without the children.12
- Ogata BN, Hayes D. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: nutrition guidance for healthy children ages 2 to 11 years. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 2014 Aug;114(8):1257-76. doi: 10.1016/j.jand.2014.06.001.
- Littlecott HJ, Moore GF, Moore L, Lyons RA, Murphy S. Association between breakfast consumption and educational outcomes in 9–11-year-old children. Public Health Nutrition. 2016;19(9):1575-1582. doi:10.1017/S1368980015002669.
- Kesztyüs D, Traub M, Lauer R, Kesztyüs T, Steinacker JM. Skipping breakfast is detrimental for primary school children: cross-sectional analysis of determinants for targeted prevention. BMC Public Health. 2017;17:258. doi:10.1186/s12889-017-4169-z.
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Healthy Breakfast for Kids: It’s All About Balance. https://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm456060.htm ; accessed 7-18-18.
- USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service. The National School Lunch Program. https://fns-prod.azureedge.net/sites/default/files/cn/NSLPFactSheet.pdf updated November 2017, accessed 7-20-18.
- Federal Register, Vol 77 No 17. January 26, 2012. Nutrition Standards in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs, Final Rule. https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2012-01-26/pdf/2012-1010.pdf accessed 7-20-18
- Johnston CA, Moreno JP, El-Mubasher A, Woehler D. School lunches and lunches brought from home: a comparative analysis. Child Obesity. 2012 Aug;8(4):364-8. doi: 10.1089/chi.2012.0012.
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. National Institutes of Health. Office of Dietary Supplements. Calcium Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Calcium-HealthProfessional/ updated 3-2-17; accessed 7-19-18.
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. National Institutes of Health. Office of Dietary Supplements. Vitamin D Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminD-HealthProfessional/ updated 3-2-18; accessed 7-19-18
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. National Institutes of Health. Office of Dietary Supplements. Potassium Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Potassium-HealthProfessional/ updated 3-21-18; accessed 7-19-18.
- Kranz S, Brauchla M, Slavin JL, Miller KB. What Do We Know about Dietary Fiber Intake in Children and Health? The Effects of Fiber Intake on Constipation, Obesity, and Diabetes in Children. Advances in Nutrition. 2012;3(1):47-53. doi:10.3945/an.111.001362.
- Van der Horst K, Ferrage A, Rytz A. Involving children in meal preparation. Effects on food intake. Appetite. 2014 Aug;79:18-24. doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2014.03.030. Epub 2014 Apr 4.