Getting the proper nutrition has been shown to be incredibly important in boosting academic performance and promoting better behaviour. Often when we think about nutrition and school meals, we picture kids who don’t get enough to eat at home. This is certainly one aspect of the problem.
If a child is hungry, it’s difficult, if not impossible to focus on anything much beyond their hunger. Simply getting enough to eat, however, does not necessarily solve all of the problems. Many of our kids are struggling because they eat too many of the wrong types of things. Food shouldn’t just fill them up, it also needs to offer the correct balance of nutrients, vitamins, and minerals to ensure that their bodies can work at their optimum level.
It can seem overwhelming when you try to figure out how much of what foods would be best for your child. In addition, most of us don’t have the time or energy to make our own flaxseed, quinoa and rolled oats granola…not to mention that no kid I know would be likely to eat something that most closely resembles bird food.
A better bet is for parents, kids and schools to work together to provide healthier food and help kids establish the right kind of eating habits.
When to Eat and Drink
Children (and adults for that matter) do better when they concentrate on their food and don’t just mindlessly eat. Sitting at the table and making the meal or snack the priority will help kids recognise when they are full.
In a school or daycare setting, eating with other children also helps them learn table manners and develop important social skills. At home, eating a meal as a family has been shown to have benefits beyond the nutritional ones. Kids in families who have dinner together often have a more complex vocabulary, perform better at school, have more positive moods, and less stress than their peers who lived in families that did not eat together.
It is also important to have structured meal and snack times.
If kids are allowed to ‘graze’ all of the time, they never get the chance to really build up any hunger for a meal time. Children do have smaller stomachs than adults, so snacks are important, but an average toddler or preschooler only needs two small snacks a day in addition to their three meals.
By the time your child is school-age, one afternoon snack should be enough unless their school schedule necessitates an early breakfast. In that case, a morning snack might still be necessary too. Snacks should be eaten sitting at the table, just like a meal. It is important not to fall into the trap of giving your kids a snack just to keep them occupied. This can set up a bad precedent where they start looking to food any time that they are bored.
What to Eat and Drink
Although it might not seem like it, controlling where and how often your kids eat are actually fairly easy. It is just a matter of setting up some rules and sticking with them. The much harder problem to address is trying to figure out what to give them to eat. Kids ages 1-3 only need about 1200 to 1400 calories per day and older kids ages 4-6 need 1500 to 1700 calories per day. Added sugar, fat, caffeine, chemicals, and sodium, are all bad for our kids.
The trick is figuring out exactly what they do need and giving it to them it in such a way that they might actually eat it. Nobody in the family will be happy with the bland, tasteless food and you don’t want to create a future monster child who goes crazy their first year at university eating nothing but biscuits and chips because they finally don’t have to answer to you!
If you are struggling to understand what the appropriate amounts of things are, the government does provide guidelines to help you. They break it down by age and gender, so you can get a pretty accurate idea of what makes sense for your child. Firstly, portion size is really important. When you put the food on your child’s plate, remember that it needs to contain a lot less food than if it was serving an adult.
Small portions help keep kids from overeating, they also help reluctant eaters try things. If your child isn’t convinced that they like peas they might be willing to try a small amount but if you give them a heaped portion they are more likely to be overwhelmed by it. Remember that if they eat what is on their plate they can always have more!
In addition to portion size, the other critical component is what kids are actually eating.
Studies have shown that failure to get enough important nutrients like iron and zinc can cause decreased attention spans and difficulty concentrating and learning. This is compounded because too much sugar and sodium can also contribute to a lack of energy and difficulty focusing.
When we give our kids a breakfast or lunch full of processed foods we are setting them up for trouble instead of success. For example, one serving of tomato pasta sauce can have over 600 milligrams of sodium in it. That is half of the recommended daily allowance for a 4 to 8-year-old! Sometimes it can feel like the only solution is to quit your job, buy a farm and grow all your own food, but that isn’t feasible (or desirable!) for most of us. So, what can we do?
- Compare Labels: While some pre-made pasta sauce has 600 milligrams of sodium and 10 grams of sugar other brands have substantially less. Some have as little as 250 milligrams of sodium and only 5 grams of sugar. Choose wisely.
- Don’t buy junk: If you buy that bag of cookies eventually someone is going to eat it because it is there.
- Have fruit for a snack: Snack items marketed to kids, like brightly coloured crackers and gummy chews, are some of the worst things that they are eating. Make it so that snack is an apple, banana or some grapes. Fruit is still sweet and tasty for kids, but it gives them important nutrients, vitamins, and fibre, unlike the processed snack foods.
- Make veggies fun: Cut cucumbers into stars with a cookie cutter. Get a spiraliser and turn squashes into spaghetti. Melt some cheese on top of the broccoli (just use real cheese not processed and be aware of portion size.) Grate some carrots into your meatballs, they will never know!
- Make your own nuggets: You can buy pre-cut boneless, skinless chicken tenders. Dip them in some egg and breadcrumbs and fry in a bit of oil. It is still pretty quick and easy but has tons less sodium and preservatives than the pre-made variety.
- Have the kids help cook: If you want to make that Moroccan Chicken Curry but are dubious about whether your kids will eat it, make them help. Have them cut the zucchini, rinse and add the garbanzo beans and even prep the chicken. Studies indicate that children are more likely to eat the food if they have been involved in making it. (My son would never eat scrambled eggs until my mother had him help her make them. Now he claims he loves them and asks to make and eat them regularly!)
If you have a picky eater, take heart, you are not alone! The key is not to let yourself get frustrated and just keep trying. Experts say that you can’t really know if your child doesn’t like something until they have been presented it at least 15 times with no results! Now I may only make ratatouille once a year, so my kids may be out of the house before they ever develop a taste for it. But for something like scrambled eggs, that you are likely to make much more frequently, you just need to keep exposing them to the opportunity to try it.
It is also important to remember that they are not going to let themselves starve to death. If they are hungry they will eat something. I always try to have at least one thing on the plate that I know my kids will eat but it isn’t unusual for them to leave most of their dinner untouched. I don’t offer up any alternatives, so they go to bed, get up in the morning and generally have a big breakfast to compensate.
You want your kids to be healthy and have the proper nutrition to do well in school and beyond. There is a lot of information out there and it is easy to feel overwhelmed and confused. It is important to try to keep it in perspective. You don’t have to change your entire lifestyle or devote all your time to crafting organic, vegan delicacies.
Read labels, make small changes, and remember that kids are changing all of the time, so although this week they hate green beans, next week green beans may be their favourite food. You never know!
At Harmony we provide nutritionally balanced meals that will help your child be at their very best. Want to take a look for yourself? Please contact us to schedule a meeting or book a tour to see if Harmony is the right fit for your child!