Parents and caregivers could be forgiven for focusing most of their back-to-school energy on COVID-19 restrictions and guidance ahead of a return to in-person school. But now that school is in session, it’s also time to make sure that our children are eating right throughout the day, including before, during and after school.
In Miami-Dade County, despite the fact that the school system offered free breakfast and lunch for kids throughout the pandemic, one in six children still experience food insecurity. On the other side of the spectrum are kids who have fallen into overeating unhealthy meals and lack of physical activity. “Just like in the adults that are gaining weight, children are as well," Dr. Elizabeth Steinberg, a pediatrician with Broward Health Physician Group, told the Sun Sentinel. They aren’t shielded from the risk factors of being in home isolation and not getting enough physical activity.”
The good news is that there is help out there, but parents must do their part as well.
New school year, new start for healthy breakfast
Some nutritional principles never change: limit sugar-filled cereals or pastries and whenever possible have them eat fruit instead of always drinking their fruits as they also have a lot of sugar. But as any parent knows, getting your children to eat what they should is easier said than done, especially at breakfast.
Young school-age children can be very picky eaters. It is our job to be patient and consistent in pushing healthy choices. Don’t expect them to go right into oatmeal and grapefruit to start the day, but do offer them new healthy choices at breakfast, along with what you know they already will eat. Make sure to offer new foods first when they are most hungry.
There is also help available as The Florida Department of Health in Miami-Dade County offers nutrition counseling and education for free with experts as part of its Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program. Call 786-336-1300 or visit www.floridahealth.gov/programs-and-services. If you can get your children to school early enough, free breakfast with healthy options is also available at Miami-Dade County Public Schools.
Getting a handle on the lunchroom jungle
Students have their own lunchroom ecosystem, and it is hard enough for your child to manage through it without having to think too much about healthy choices. Help them along their way by preparing a lunch for them including plenty of fruits and vegetables and avoid prepackaged snacks like Lunchables (too much sodium!) and the like. Cook the night before (maybe along with any dinner preparations) so they can enjoy better-prepared meals than you can throw together in the morning rush. Sandwiches are always easy enough, but try and use whole wheat or healthy bread options and pay attention to the nutritional value of the cold cuts and cheese you put in them.
If they are choosing from what is offered in the cafeteria, planning ahead can make all the difference. Visit the website that lists the school lunches on a weekly basis (https://dadeschools.nutrislice.com/) and talk about what is offered, what are the healthiest choices and what they are likely to choose. But don’t let it end there. Talk to your children when they get home and continue the conversation about what they liked and didn’t and what a good diet will give them.
Additional nutrition after school
The return to school for many students and families also means a return to after-school programs at school or privately run. The Florida Department of Healthy offers Afterschool Meals Program for certain schools (where 50 percent of students are on free or reduced lunch) that includes snacks or suppers that abide by US Department of Agriculture nutritional guides – milk, fruit, veggies, grain and meat (or meat substitute).
The Children’s Trust’s after-school programs for K-5 and 6-12 graders also provide meals and snacks according to federal guidelines. You can find a list and map of after-school programs near you – many of which also offer sports, games, dance and other fitness promoting activities – at www.TheChildrensTrust.org/After-School.