Fuelling Your Kids for School
By Melissa Hohaia, Naturopath
i have two school-aged kids this year and the reality of school lunches every morning has slapped me inthe face. It can feel like a constant challenge to make sure that their lunch is healthy and nutritious but also appealing to the highly trained eye of a child. The moment that I was not prepared for though, was when my daughter excitedly came home with the canteen order form and asked if she could buy her lunch one day – I had to try so hard not to completely squash her dreams and be appalled by what choices were in front of us with the “smiley-face-healthy-rating” next to things like ‘chocolate flavoured milk’, ‘white bread cheese toasted sandwiches’, and pre-made ‘macaroni and cheese’! It made me really question what policies are in place that govern school canteens and the message that this sends our kids about healthy eating. Our schools are filled with kids that are struggling with learning difficulties, behavioural issues, allergies, and obesity – and they are failing to give families the right information about appropriate nutrition and “real” food advice.
The connection between food and the way our bodies function has been known for a long time – we need vitamins and minerals as building blocks that ensures our body works at its best. But recently there has been more and more research into the connection between gut health and brain health – we are now beginning to understand the direct connection between our digestive tract, all the trillions of cells/bacteria that call it home (also known as our microbiome), and the ability of our nervous system and brain to work at its best. When our gut environment is not in a good balance things can go out of whack in other areas of our bodies – such as our brain and immune systems (both of which we need working hard for our kids at school). In understanding the importance of this connection, the first place we can start is by giving our kids the right types of food that foster a happy digestive system. Foods that are less disruptive and provide neatly packed bombs of vitamins and minerals are essential for helping keep your child focused, calm, energetic, and happy.
Some of the big culprits are sugars, gluten, additives and preservatives. Making simple steps to switch things out and find alternatives can be a good start. I have listed some options below that have worked for myself and patients in the past:
- Ditch the bread for rice crackers, corn crackers, or rice cakes.
- Switch the pre-packaged muesli bars or snacks for homemade cooking where you can control the amount and type of sugar used
- Swap the canned fruits or premade snack packs for fresh cut up veggies or fruit – it might help to cut it into interesting shapes or tiny bite sized pieces. (if your child is new to the concept of fresh fruit or veggie then you may have to start slow and with small amounts.)
- Read food labels and become aware of what additives and preservatives are in the food you are purchasing – utilise tools like “Additive Alert” to check certain ones and discover other healthier alternatives.
- Replace Juice with Infused or Plain Water – Kids need a constant supply of water through the day and plain water should be all they need, but if you feel it necessary to give a bit of a flavoured liquid ‘treat’ why not try chilling herbal teas or put fresh fruit/herbs in their water (such as mint and berries).
- Find alternatives for protein other than cold deli meats – such as left over roasts, canned fish, hard boiled eggs, lentils, leftovers from dinner (lamb chops, meatballs, sliced up good quality sausages, chicken drumsticks/wings).
- Dispose of the processed cheese singles or cheese sticks, and flavoured sweetened ‘kids’ yoghurts and purchase blocks of cheese and tubs of natural yoghurt that can be divided into individual serves – this will not only be healthier but will also save you money. Even try freezing yogurt in individual pouches so that they are still cold for lunchtime.
- Make in bulk and freeze – cooking up big batches of healthy slices, muffins, bite-sized snacks is not a lot more effort but you can then freeze for a later date. Before long you will have a stockpile of quick, nutritious options to select from.
- Let your child construct their own lunch – put in a selection of cut up/ready to eat options for them to put together. For example…cut up veggies, sliced cheese, sliced meats, squished hard-boiled egg, dips, crackers etc. They can feel independence by constructing lunch for themselves.
- Include an ice pack and/or frozen drink bottle with their lunch in the warmer months to keep things fresh. In winter having a Thermos can be a good idea to keep things warm – such as soups or casseroles.
Don’t forget to share the learning process with you kids. Educate them on why these new food choices are so important and praise them on trying new things or eating well. If you are feeling like you need more guidance with what foods you should be giving your child or you have concerns about their health it may be worth considering a naturopathic appointment – there are cases where individual food intolerances or more specific nutritional supplementation may need to be considered.