If the maxim, “You are what you eat,” were really true, then I would have been a sloppy-joe-tater-tot-greasy-green-bean monster in elementary school. But I’d have been in good company. A large percentage of my classmates who also purchased lunch from the cafeteria would have also been in the same, soggy boat.
Although there has been recent positive news about the number of overweight children decreasing slightly, the fact remains that over 27 percent of children ages 2 to 5 years are considered to be overweight and about 60 percent of children who are overweight as preschoolers continue to be overweight as adolescents.
What changes are being made?
To do its part in keeping children healthy, in 2012, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) made its first major revisions to school meal standards in over 15 years. The standards embrace whole grains, fruits, and vegetables; limit fat and sodium; and set age-appropriate calorie limits and portion sizes. These changes reach nearly 32 million children.
What Can You Do?
1. The latest on children’s nutrition
The USDA’s The School Day Just Got Healthier website offers a toolkit for parents (as well as educators, administrators, and community members) to make the meal changes a positive experience for children. The site also contains many useful links and resources in their 10 Tips Nutrition Education Series, including tip sheets like
- Kid Friendly Veggies and Fruits
- Eating Better on a Budget
- Make Better Beverage Choices
Most of the handouts also include content in Spanish. The Healthy Children website from the American Academy of Pediatrics offers nutrition advice from medical experts:
2. Healthy meal ideas
Do you pack lunches for your children? Or are you constantly looking for tasty healthy dinner ideas? Try ideas from these websites:
- Eating Well. Back to School: Lunch for Kids
- Super Healthy Kids. Healthy Kids Recipes
- Kid-Friendly Healthy Dinner Recipes
- Kidspot Kitchen
- My Recipes: Healthy Kids
3. Talk to your child about healthy nutrition. Having a healthy attitude towards food doesn’t happen overnight. Here’s what you can do:
- Introduce your child to a variety of foods.
- Discuss where various foods come from. Grocery shop together. Visit farms, farmers markets, and orchards, if possible, to speak directly to farmers.
- Cook together! Your child can stir, add ingredients and spices, roll dough, etc. Introduce new or “unusual” foods slowly and in different ways (e.g. raw onions in a salad don’t taste like caramelized onions in a taco).
- Show flexibility. Model trying new things and refrain from acting negatively towards foods you don’t prefer.
- Read together. Discover how specific foods relate to different cultures, practice funny food rhymes, or learn about nutrients. For a list of children’s books that deal with nutrition and fitness, view this list of resources from Young Children. For more information about this topic, see the November 2014 Nutrition and Fitness for All Young Children issue of Young Children.
I'm happy to report that these days, I've shed the sloppy-joe-greasy-green-bean guise for a healthier one. What would your children say?
Mabel Yu is an associate editor at NAEYC.