Tips to Encourage Healthy Eating in School Age Kids

I thought I would share a little end-of-summer back-to-school update with all of you. At the end of last school year I mentioned that we all got bikes. What started as a treat for myself in the form of a birthday present turned into me realizing the kids had actually grown out of their bikes and really needed some new wheels themselves.

Tips to Encourage Healthy Eating in School Age Kids

The money spent on those bikes was the best money I spent all summer. They were so excited to have new bikes, plus learning how to use their new gears, that I had a much easier time keeping them active this summer.Summer kept us busy with lots of bike rides, trips to the pool, more trips to the pool, little league baseball games, exploring our local trails, and lots and lots of bike rides to the park.

Tips to Encourage Healthy Eating in School Age Kids

Things, like always these days, have been super busy in our house. School has started so we’ve traded in our afternoon bike rides to the park for morning bike rides to school. Its always an adjustment period the first few weeks. We have to learn really difficult things all over again. Like how to get out of bed on time. How to get dressed and eat breakfast right away. How to leave the house before noon and make sure we get to school on time.

I’m kidding, obviously. But for some reason my kids think these are hard things. And maybe what is challenging is that it is a change from what’s been the norm for the past couple of months.

One of the things that has been a challenge already this year is sending Logan to school with enough food in his belly to get him through to lunch – especially with all of the physical activity that he’s been up to lately. He’s in 5th grade this year and they eat last, which puts them at eating around 1:00 pm (they do have a snack time earlier in the day which helps immensely).

So, I thought I’d talk a little bit about nutrition for kids and some tips to help them make smart and healthy food choices before school so they can get through the day until lunch – it is seriously hard work doing all that math and reading – as well as how to encourage them to make good choices at school when you aren’ there to monitor the situation.

Because let’s face it, whether your kid takes hot lunch at school or brings lunch from home, you aren’t there to make sure they’re eating the right things.

Tips to Encourage Healthy Eating in School Age Kids

1. Plan Ahead and Allow for Plenty of Time

I know, really I know, how tempting it is to let the kids sleep as late as possible in the morning. They’re tired. I’m tired. No on wants to be abruptly woken from their soft, warm bed. Most of last year I planned that as long as I got Madeline up by 8:15 I could get her to school by 9. But giving her that extra time to sleep didn’t make our morning easier.

It was worse. Because everything was all about rush, rush, rush. Hurry up, we’re late. Eat quick. Get in the car. Now. Faster. It’s time to go. Really, right now! And when that happens, there is no time for a good breakfast, only a quick one.

recipe for strawberry and meyer lemons

If we plan our mornings a little better, get up even just 30 minutes earlier, and maybe even pack our lunches the night before, then we have a much easier morning. I have happier kids. We have breakfasts that aren’t rushed and our brains and bodies are better fueled and ready for the day. I have time to say “Would you like me to cut up some strawberries to add to your yogurt?” or “Do you want toast and a smoothie or cereal with fruit and milk?”

So this tip is really a mom tip. But it benefits the kids and we all know much kids learn from our example. By showing them you value your mornings and how you choose to fuel your body (and theirs) you’re encouraging them to make healthier and smarter choices  as they get older. Even Logan, who’s only 2 1/2 years older than Madeline, can often make his breakfast – and do a good job of it – if I’m busy helping Madeline with something when he’s ready to eat.

2. Be Active

When we are good about allowing for plenty of time in the morning, we have time to participate in our school’s bike/walk to school program. So far we have walked or biked to school every day that the kids have been home with me (their dad lives farther away from the school). They earn rewards for this which is fun and super motivating.

They’re being active right away in the morning. It boosts their mood (we’ve had tons less petty arguments on our way out the door so far!) and gets them ready to learn.

Tips to Encourage Healthy Eating in School Age Kids

But they’re also expending energy from the breakfast they just ate. This is totally benefiting us in the healthy eating department too. They’re for real hungry when lunchtime rolls around. That means they’re actually eating their lunch because they’re feeling the need for more fuel at their midday meal. 

I don’t know about your kids, but mine are much more inclined to eat something healthy that is offered to them when they’re really hungry vs. not hungry.

3. Offer Choices

This one might seem obvious, but I heard a lot about research from Cornell University’s Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs that supports this when I attended the School Nutrition Association ANC.

Kids are more likely to eat fruits or vegetables at lunch when they are offered a choice, such as “Would you like an apples or an orange?”

If you’re packing lunch that’s an easy one. As a parent you’re probably going to put some kind of fruit in your kid’s lunch. That shouldn’t be a surprise to your child. So, tell them what you have and ask them which they’d prefer.

If your child is getting hot lunch, have a conversation about what’s on the menu today. “Hey Madeline, it looks like they’re offering green salad or sugar snap peas with the grilled chicken today. Which one do you want to get?” That will help them process the fact that they should choose (and eat) fruit or vegetables with their lunch, but that ultimately the decision regarding which selection is in their power.

4. Rearrange Your Fridge and Pantry

Another thing that I learned from Cornell University’s Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs while attending the School Nutrition Association ANC is that “product placement” really affects kids’ food choices. Cornell’s research shows that how and where food is visually presented to kids can encourage them to make better food choices.

If plain milk is presented first, they’re more likely to choose that than a flavored milk that is obscured from their vision by being located in the back. Additionally, 58% of children will mirror the food choice of the others before them. If you can convince 1 kid to choose the healthier option, the rest will be much more likely to follow suit.

photo credit: Citrus Salad

You can easily use these tactics at home before school or for after school snacks. Put the foods you want your kids to eat within their line of sight. Remember – they’re shorter than you (usually!). Place fresh fruits and veggies on the counter and nuts or other healthy snacks on the lower shelves of the pantry, etc.

My friend Becca is great at doing this! She always has bowls of fresh fruits right in the middle of her kitchen island ready for the kids to easily grab and eat. In her fridge, she washes and chops fresh fruits and veggies and puts them in storage containers within easy reach.

Kids don’t have to worry about seeing a whole, uncut watermelon or unwashed berries. It is already ready to go. Madeline plays at their house all the time after school and primarily snacks on fresh fruit – which I totally appreciate because her dinner is never spoiled.

Healthy Snacks

Treats are ok. There isn’t anything wrong with indulging here and there but kids don’t need junk to refuel there bodies. Often times when my kids want to snack after school or before bed it is because they’re bored. Here are a few healthy snack ideas to promote smart eating habits. You can still satisfy a sweet or salty craving without going overboard.

What are your best tips to encourage healthy eating in school age kids?

This post is sponsored by School Nutrition Association.  All opinions are my own.