Brain Power Schools, Parents Are Both Responsible for Ensuring Nutritious Choices

It’s a long time between dinner and the next day’s lunch. Too long, in fact, to skip breakfast — especially for young people.

“Most kids eat dinner and then maybe a snack before bed, and then they go a long time without eating,” said Mary Stratton, a clinical dietician at Mercy Medical Center. “You need breakfast to get your body fueled. A lot of kids want that extra half-hour of sleep in the morning instead of eating some eggs, cereal, or whatever. As a parent, you can always send a whole-grain muffin with peanut butter with them on the bus or the car ride to school. That would definitely help them get the needed nutrients.

“That’s why schools have breakfast programs,” she continued. “They realize how important it is to concentrate and focus. If you’re hungry, your mind is wandering, and you’re thinking about what time lunch is or the fact that your stomach is growling, rather than thinking about the next math problem.”

With that thought, Stratton encapsulated the partnership that parents and schools should have in making sure students are well-nourished away from home. In other words, although schools should make sure cafeteria meals are nutritious and that fatty snacks are kept to a minimum, mom and dad have a role to play as well.

“Most kids get breakfast at home, but if they’re not going to eat at home, send something with them on the bus to chew on the way to school,” she said. “They need the same nutrients we do, just smaller amounts of everything. They should be getting fruits and vegetables every day, dairy, meat, whole grains.”

Meanwhile, a decade of movement toward healthier school meals could culminate in some significant changes as the government takes up the issue this year.

For the Health of It

Just last month, 16 members of Congress introduced a bill under which the federal government would spend $150 million to put more fresh fruits and vegetables into public-school meals.

Congress is expected to tackle an overhaul of school food programs in 2010 with an eye toward better nutritional value, and the bill was an opening salvo in that discussion. The bill would require the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which oversees the school-meals program, to remove barriers to the broader use of fresh fruits and vegetables in school programs, as well as promoting salad bars as a way to encourage consumption of fresh produce.

About $20 million would be available to schools to purchase salad bars, and another $100 million to upgrade cafeteria equipment. The bill also includes $20 million in grants for a ‘farm-to-school’ program for purchase of locally grown fresh produce.

Last fall, a National Academy of Sciences report recommended that schools increase the amount of fruits and vegetables served in meals. Some 31 million children get hot lunches and 11 million eat breakfast through the school meals program, and nearly $17 billion was appropriated for school meals and related programs last year.

Getting kids to eat healthier takes more than funding, though. Stratton said it often requires a little creativity, too.

“Schools are now trying to make their meals a little healthier for the kids, trying to get less of the saturated fats and more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains,” she said. “They’re even sneaking vegetables into meatloaf, casseroles, and soups, so even though the kids might not have a plate of broccoli in front of them, they’re still getting some of the vegetables they need.”

But the government wants to go beyond sneaking in healthy foods. The USDA has created a project called Team Nutrition, aiming to do nothing less than change kids’ food habits for the better.

Among its goals are planning healthy school meals that appeal to a variety of ethnic and cultural taste preferences; linking meals programs to other educational activities; providing nutrition expertise and awareness to the classroom; and using sound business practices to assure the continued availability of healthy meals.

The education component of Team Nutrition includes messages encouraging students to eat a variety of foods; eat more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains; eat lower-fat foods more often; eat calcium-rich foods; and stay physically active. The program also seeks to build support programs for schools’ nutrition-education efforts by partnering with businesses, nonprofit organizations, and health, education, and entertainment groups.

In the meantime, Stratton said, parents need to keep an eye on what their children are eating each day, because skipping meals can lead to problems with both learning and health.

“A lot of school lunches offer a main meal, plus an alternative, like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich,” she said. “There’s not a lot of variety in the younger grades, but at the high-school level they do tend to have snack bars and salad bars.”

In addition, many schools print menus and mail them home to parents. That’s important, she said, because parents tend to know which foods their kids are pickiest about, and with a menu in hand, they can prepare an alternate brown-bag lunch for those days.

Without such a plan, “if Friday is fish day and your child won’t touch fish, he won’t eat, and when he gets home he’ll be cranky and tired, and no one likes that.”

Lifetime Habits

Schools have a long way to go, nutrition-wise. Indeed, lawmakers have taken up the topic of unhealthy vending-machine options on more than one occasion over the past few years. But Stratton comes back to the idea of parents and schools working together to promote a culture of nutrition in kids.

“No one needs the extra fat, whether you’re 12, 22, 42, or 82,” she said. “If you start watching your fat and sugar intake when you’re younger, maybe you won’t have that heart attack at 45 and suddenly realize you can’t have McDonald’s every day.”

Setting the right example is important, too. Teachers shouldn’t use sweet snacks as rewards, Stratton said, but should opt for prizes like pencils with fun erasers.

As for parents, “if you eat only fast food at home and then tell your kids to eat all their vegetables at school, that’s not a consistent message,” she said. “You need to be a role model. Let them help in the kitchen, so they learn how to make healthy foods. Let it be a bonding time with your kids.”

After all, with all the hours they’re spending in school, those moments together at home are valuable — and healthy in more ways than one.