Back to School? Healthy Foods for Healthy Kids

Some children will be attending school online while others are returning to in-person classes.  At the same time there is clear evidence that children not only can contract and become ill with Covid-19, they can also transmit it.  No matter which option your children are facing,  it’s important to make sure that they are following hygiene and social distancing guidelines and wearing masks.  It’s equally important to make sure they are eating the foods that will strengthen their immune systems as well as helping them grow and thrive.  A healthy diet plays a major role in children’s health by helping them reach or maintain healthy weight levels, keep their minds and emotions functioning at peak levels, as well as avoiding illness.

Getting kids to eat healthy foods presents its own set of challenges, as they will usually gravitate towards sweets and junk foods if given a choice.  It’s important to start them off early, when you have more control over what they eat, and get them accustomed to eating nutritious foods that include healthy fats for their brains, calcium for their bones, protein for growth and repair, as well as fiber and nutrients from fruits and vegetables.  Instead of surrendering to the enticement and ease of fast food and junk snacks, it’s critical to make sure the majority of your child’s meals are nutrient dense instead of empty calories.

There are many healthy foods you can incorporate into meals that your kids will enjoy while also gaining the nutritional benefits:

  1. Yogurt.  As long as you pay attention to the amount of added sugar, yogurt, especially Greek yogurt, is an excellent source of protein and calcium as well as probiotics for gut health.  Look for low sugar options or get plain yogurt and add berries and nuts with unsweetened applesauce or a small amount of honey if extra sweetening is needed.  It can also be added to smoothies or frozen into yogurt pops.
  2. Dark leafy greens.  While all vegetables are nutritious, dark leafy greens are packed with vitamins A, C, E and K as well as many B-vitamins.  They are rich in antioxidants, iron, magnesium, potassium, and calcium as well as being high in fiber.  They strengthen the immune system, help relieve congestion, increase energy, and are an excellent source of plant-based calcium for bone health and development.  If they’re rejected as a side dish, be creative and add them to smoothies, soups, pasta sauces, on pizzas, in meatballs, or in favorite casseroles.
  3. All other veggies.  The more vegetables you can get your kids to eat, the better off they will be.  Aim for the rainbow because different colors offer different nutrients.  Make sure you include cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower for gut health as well as disease prevention.  Orange and yellow veggies provide the carotenoids that are critical for eye, heart, brain, and bone health. Most kids like carrot sticks.
  4. Sweet potatoes.  They are loaded with vitamin A, fiber, potassium, and beta-carotene.  Instead of french fries, make some baked sweet potato fries.
  5. Nuts and seeds.  As a substitute for the highly processed packaged snacks that offer little or no nutritional value, nuts and seeds provide fiber, protein, and healthy fats.  They can be eaten alone or with dried fruits.  Nut butters spread on whole grain toast make an excellent breakfast and they also work well with apple slices as a snack.
  6. Eggs.  Hard to beat for nutrition as well as versatility and can be eaten by kids from a very early age.  They provide high-quality protein along with iron, vitamins, minerals and disease-fighting carotenoids like lutein and zeaxanthin.   You can boil them, scramble them, use them in omelets or add them to all kinds of foods from baked goods to fried rice.
  7. Whole grains.  White breads, pasta, rice and flour are all processed with the nutritional value and fiber stripped from the grains they are made from.  Whole grains, on the other hand, retain the protein, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and fiber found in their bran and germ.  Serve whole grain breads and pastas, brown rice, quinoa, barley and farro.  Use whole wheat flour in baked goods, pancakes and waffles.  Oatmeal makes a great breakfast with apples or berries added for extra sweetness and nutrition.
  8. Beans.  These are a low-cost source of high-quality, non-meat protein that are also an excellent source of fiber and nutrients like potassium and magnesium which are crucial for healthy mood and bone development.  They can be added to kid-friendly meals like burritos, tacos, quesadillas, chili and pasta.
  9. Whole fruits.  Instead of juices, let your kids eat the whole fruit.  The fiber allows the sugar to be absorbed into the blood stream more slowly to prevent spikes as well as helping with gut health and digestion.  Berries are especially nutritious because of their high vitamin and antioxidant content and lower sugar content.  Add them to smoothies, pancakes, oatmeal, and home-made whole-grain muffins.
  10. Water, milk, plant milks, coconut water.  Serve these instead of sugar-sweetened beverages or even fruit juice which is also high in sugar.  Stay away from sport drinks and energy drinks which are loaded with sugar and caffeine.

Set the example for your kids by the way you eat and don’t keep junk food on hand.  It’s ok to allow an occasional candy or other treat, but it shouldn’t be a habit.

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