The Basics

Back to Basics

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In my house, back-to-school means back-to-food negotiations. Some of this is driven by the school year schedule. The rest is personality.

Case in point: One of my kids bounds out of bed, wide-eyed and ready to go. He’ll eat just about anything for breakfast, and make it himself, too. All before 7:00am. My other, let’s just say not so much. She stands facing her closet, eyes closed (because she is still asleep, for all intents and purposes), and as if the air is made of Jello, she moves painfully slowly from getting dressed to brushing her teeth to packing her backpack to brushing her hair, which she forgot to do after brushing her teeth. She drags herself into the kitchen without an ounce of appetite.

One of my kids is a committed vegetarian, the other will, basically, eat anything other than a beet.

Both of my kids have a sweet tooth (as does their mother), but one has the amazing ability to pass on the dessert when full.

We all know that good nutrition is a key ingredient to school (and health!) success. But how do you convince your kids to nourish themselves as best as possible? And how to manage feeding a household when siblings have radically different palates? Here are my tips, including a smattering of worthy recent articles on the topic.

 

THE GREAT BREAKFAST DEBATE 

The virtues of an early morning meal have been debated for ages. Some (like this and this) point to the benefits of breakfast, while others argue, meh not so much. The current general consensus is that breakfast is important because it provides energy for the brain, a metabolic boost, and drives better food choices for the rest of the day. That said, what and how much you eat matter, too.

Under my own roof, I pretty much insist that something get consumed before – or while – you walk out the door. But I have let go of the fantasy that both of my kids will be well-fed before 7:30am. For my night owl who is downright sluggish in her first hour of being vertical, it is a-okay with me if she eats just a spoonful of almond butter or a single hard-boiled egg. A little is better than nothing.

 

LESSONS IN LABEL READING

When our kids are little, we pack their lunches, make their snacks and determine the overall balance of their diet. But as they get older, independence comes into play in the form of the school cafeteria, neighborhood stores, and even the supermarket.

Kids tell me they want to understand how to make smart choices when it comes to buying food. They complain -- rightfully so -- that nutrition labels make the quest nearly impossible. If I can barely decode it (and I can barely decode it!), how can we expect our kids to flip over the package, scan the info on the back, and make a smart snap decision in the throes of intense hunger?

Over the summer, the NY Times published this great article. It’s nutrition label reading 101. The article is a bit long, so plan to carve out a chunk of time or read it in snack-sized bites. And share it with your kids, especially if they are middle- or high-schoolers.

 

AVOID THE SUGAR SHACK

Often, the best way to convince your kid to follow a suggestion or house rule is to explain why. Take the example of sugar. If you just insist upon its badness, its sweet yumminess overpowers any desire to replace it with a healthier option. But if you explain why sugar has earned a bad reputation, that reasoning travels with your child throughout the day, regardless of whether or not you are there to police the junk food situation. Understanding why also helps to reinforce the notion of moderation: a little sugar is fine, so enjoy it; a lot of sugar, not such a great idea.

Need to educate yourself about what sugar does to the body? I have recommended this talk by Dr. Robert Lustig for years. It is worth watching, but it’s as long as a feature length movie, so set aside a big chunk of time or watch it incrementally. Want something zippier to share with your kids? Hank Green’s SciShow is a longtime favorite, and this episode is no exception.

 

KEEP IT SIMPLE, STUPID

In the end, food is a complicated subject, largely because choices are influenced by so many variables (cost, availability, flavor, texture, craving, psychological impact, memory, dietary restrictions, illness, wellness, I could go on…). Food is all at once something to be grateful for and an absolute necessity; it is also fraught with complicated social, physical and emotional implications. When it comes to nourishing your child, keep it simple. A few big tips:

· Every kid I have ever taught knows that, generally speaking, whole foods are better for you than processed ones.

· Eat slowly, even if you are famished. That way you will be able to register fullness, not to mention you won’t walk away doubled over in pain. 

· Water is the go-to drink. Enough said.

· We all like stuff that isn’t great for us and that’s fine – enjoy it! Moderation is our friend.

There’s obviously much more to say on the subject. Check out resources like the Center for Science in the Public Interest and its Nutrition Action Newsletter. And when all else fails, remember Michael Pollan’s mantra that will always drive the smartest nutrition choices: Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.