Beth Edmiston, PhD, RN, CCRN is a Heights mom and our health advocate! Look for more blogs from Beth about keeping our kids healthy at school and home.
Hello Heights Coop! My name is Beth Edmiston, or to the kids in Mx. Taryn’s room, Miles’s mom. This is our third year at Heights Coop, and we have been packing lunches and snacks since even before that.
Besides being a mom, I am also a nurse, and spent many years as a cardiac nurse. Part of my job was educating patients on heart healthy nutrition. Since starting to pack my own children’s lunches and being the person responsible for figuring out how to support my kids’ balanced diet, I found my knowledge and creativity in this area were really lacking. Over the years, I have done a lot of digging through medical resources, magazines, cookbooks, and so on, to learn about child nutrition, what to do about picky eaters, and ideas for healthy, fun snacks.
So how can we balance healthy eating with our busy lives? I have put together some solutions to support our preschoolers in getting comfortable with a wide range of nutritious lunch and snack foods.
Let’s Talk about Nutrients
Having a variety of nutrients and food options is important for building healthy bodies - and a healthy relationship with food as our kids grow. A balanced diet has a place for all types of food. Remember, all food is fuel for our bodies.
Most people are familiar with the major nutrient groups: Carbohydrates, protein, and fats. These are called macronutrients. Other nutrients like vitamins and minerals are called micronutrients. And all of these types of nutrients work together in our bodies to help us learn and play!
It’s About Balance
Let’s talk about sugar, since there’s a lot of talk about it when it comes to nutrition. As long as meals and snacks are balanced, sweet treats can be a tasty part of your child’s lunch. In fact, sugar is the nutrient that is most readily converted to energy in the body, so having a mix of complex and simple carbs can help keep energy levels sustained throughout the day.
Everybody knows that too many sugary things all at once will give us a tummy-ache, but we also know that the lure of the forbidden is real! Remember that feeling when someone tells you "No, you can't do that" and suddenly that exact thing is all you can think about? That feeling is so powerful for children, and as we strive as parents to guide our kids to a healthy relationship with food, avoiding that lure of the forbidden can be very helpful.
Assigning moral value judgments to food, such as “good” vs “bad,” “healthy” vs “unhealthy,” etc, can have a lasting impact on a young person’s relationship with food. But encouraging your child to choose different colors, textures, or shapes of food and talking to them about how this gives their bodies all the different macro and micro nutrients they need will support them in building confidence with food and trust in their bodies as they learn what they enjoy from each category.
Remember, it’s all about balance! To reduce jittery hyperactivity and the dreaded sugar crash, pack some fats and proteins along with carbohydrates and sweet treats to stabilize their effects on blood sugar. This could look like hummus with carrots and crackers or a Greek yogurt with some chocolate chips to sprinkle on top. The possibilities are endless!
How to Encourage Your Kids to Eat Nutritiously
Kids can be picky! (Even I’m a picky eater sometimes). New foods can bring unexpected flavors, textures, and smells that take a while to get used to. Research shows that people may need to try a new food at least eleven times before they actually like it! As you’re encouraging your child to eat from many different food groups to get their nutrient bases covered, here are some suggestions to make it more fun for you both.
Eat the rainbow! Involve your child in grocery shopping and meal prep so they can see how many colors of fruits, veggies, and other foods are available. Colorful food is so much fun to eat, and you might even find new varieties of tried and true ingredients you haven’t seen before, like purple cauliflower, carrots, and even rice. Bell peppers provide a beautiful array of colors too, and go great with hummus, ranch, or your child’s favorite dip. Turning new foods into a fun and colorful activity can increase your child’s interest in their fruits and veggies.
Colorful fruits and veggies also come with their own unique micronutrients based on color called phytonutrients.
Red foods help reduce the risk of diabetes and heart disease and help promote skin health! These foods include apples, cherries, tomatoes, watermelon, beets, strawberries, red bell peppers, raspberries, kidney beans, red grapes, pomegranates, and red onions.
Orange and yellow foods are rich in vitamin C and beta-carotene, and they help boost the immune system, reduce the risk of heart disease, and support healthy eyes. Orange and yellow foods include: citrus fruits (orange, lemon, grapefruit), mango, papaya, carrots, sweet potatoes, squash, corn, cantaloupe, pineapple, peaches, bananas, and bell peppers.
Green foods are rich in so many amazing nutrients that support the immune system and our overall energy levels. Green veggies have folate and vitamin K and they help our blood and brains stay healthy! Try green foods like: broccoli, brussels sprouts, leafy greens (kale, chard, collards, romaine and green leaf lettuce, cabbage, arugula, etc.), asparagus, green beans, peas, zucchini, green apples, kiwis, grapes, and avocado.
Purple and blue foods are not only beautiful, they help reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease, decrease inflammation and pain, and support cognition and skin health. Berries especially have incredible healing benefits, helping reduce inflammation and more! Purple and blue foods include: blueberries, blackberries, grapes and raisins, plums and prunes, figs, eggplant, and purple varieties of onions, potatoes, cabbage, and cauliflower.
White and brown foods are also important in this rainbow! These phytonutrients can help protect against certain cancers and support bone and heart health. These foods include mushrooms, potatoes, parsnips, daikon radishes, jicama, cauliflower, onions, and garlic.
Read more about eating the rainbow at Food Revolution Network - and get some amazing recipe ideas too!
Try different preparations. Sometimes your kids (and you!) might love a raw veggie and hate it cooked, or vice versa. Try different preparations of foods to see if you love it a certain way! You can try roasting, steaming, grilling, or pickling instead of eating raw. You could also try using lettuce or other leafy greens as wraps, to make things more interesting.
Pack lunches and snacks together in the evening. Children engaged in decision-making and preparation of meals are more likely to eat their lunch and try new foods. Offer food choices, and talk about how to balance your packed lunch to include carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. I encourage my kids to include a fruit, vegetable, or small dairy product (string cheese) as their snack. The lunch should complement the snack choices and vice versa. If lunch has lots of veggies, make the snack a fruit option. Or include fruit in their lunch and a veggie snack to mix things up.
Make the food appealing and get creative. No, I’m not talking about those unrealistic Insta-mom lunches. Use fun ice packs, bento box containers, or add a fun napkin. I use a flower shaped cookie cutter to cut sandwiches into a fun shape! Pack some ranch or Italian dressing as a carrot or broccoli dip, or try hummus. Switch up the cheese snacks (I sometimes buy blocks of cheese and slice them myself, and my kids think it’s gourmet). Do a “homemade lunchable.” Pack leftover pasta in a thermos as a main dish. Make things easy on yourself. Start with one thing and add this to your toolkit. Eventually, as you add different methods, being creative with food choices will be easier.
Check the label. I know this can be so tedious, but some items may be hiding ingredients that you want to know about! Double check that any sweet snacks also have protein to help them sustain energy longer and reduce crashes. And also check for any potential allergens if your child or their classmates are sensitive or allergic to ingredients.
Help your child eat their lunch, even though you aren’t there! If you know your child struggles with the size of a regular sandwich, cut the sandwich into smaller pieces or use a cookie cutter to make the sandwich more appealing. Peel oranges ahead of time and place in a container for your child to easily eat. Cut fruits and veggies into smaller pieces to ensure your child attempts to eat them. Remember, the children have 20 minutes to eat lunch and you want to set them up for success!
Be persistent. Remember, it takes someone at least eleven times of trying a new food to like it. Discontinue foods that your child has a strong negative reaction to, but keep packing interesting new options! With persistence and a little creativity, they will eventually start to try new foods and find new favorites.
Finally, remember not to be hard on yourself. Every once in a while, we all only eat frozen French toast sticks or chicken nuggets for dinner. Remember that all food is fuel for our bodies, and don’t beat yourself up! Raising little humans is hard, and you’re doing great.