Setting children up for the day
As children return to school for the new academic year, parents should consider what their children consume to fuel their brains and bodies to get the nutrition needed to aid them in learning to the best of their ability, and what goes in their child’s plate, cup or bowl.
Donovan Ingraham, nutritionist/corporate wellness coordinator at Atlantic Medical says the best example of how every individual — child or adult — should be eating, is the MyPlate initiative by United States First Lady Michelle Obama in her Eat Well campaign.
“That portioned plate tells us that 50 percent of that plate needs to be fruit with vegetables or half fruit, half vegetables; 25 percent of the plate needs to be carbohydrates with fiber; and lean protein on the last portion of the plate,” said Ingraham.
In the MyPlate initiative, the five food groups that are the building blocks for a healthy diet are illustrated using a familiar image — a place setting for a meal.
With that in mind, Ingraham said the truth of the matter, and the first rule is that children only eat what they actually like, and the hardest thing to do is to get a child to eat things that are good for them. However he said the onus is on parents to steer children in the right direction, and to eat things that are good for them, taking into consideration the MyPlate initiative.
Overcoming that, he said, is simply going with what children like after a nutritional assessment, determining what they like, what they dislike, how often they consume things they like, how often they consume things they dislike, then encouraging them to consume more things that are good and that they do like for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks.
“The issue is parents aren’t prepared well enough,” said Ingraham as the majority of children in the country prepare to head back to school in a matter of days.
“A lot of scientific studies show that if a child gets a healthy breakfast every morning, the success rate in terms of their cognitive skills, their attentiveness in school is greatly enhanced and their productivity is greatly enhanced resulting in great grades at the end of the term.
“If you really want to see progress in your child and give them the best form of knowledge, then give them a good breakfast, and hopefully they will make great choices throughout the day, and be more attentive to what’s happening around them so they get the best results for themselves,” said Ingraham.
The nutritionist said a healthy breakfast sets children up for the day, and that parents should make time in the mornings to ensure their kids get one.
“My favorite options are the simple things — egg omelet with vegetables that kids will consume and a slice of toast and a glass of milk; or the old-fashioned Bahamian thing of yellow grits and tuna salad. Items like those things are very effective.”
While cold cereals aren’t his favorite options, he said if parents have to go that route, he said the cereal should be fortified with high amounts of calcium, and be a good source of fiber — at least three grams per serving. One serving is one cup.In combination with milk, which is a good source of calcium, and that children need in excessive amounts on a daily basis for their bones as they’re growing, he said cold cereal can work in a pinch.
If opting to give a child a cereal bar, Ingraham said it should be low to medium in sugar — which means less than 10 grams of sugar per serving
“Parents need to be concerned about the sugar content. Ensure that the protein content is higher, five grams per serving; ensure that the fiber content is within five grams, but that’s also relative based on the age of the child. You don’t want to give younger kids too much fiber. It’s too much complex carbohydrates in the digestive system. Kids that are getting high amounts of fiber are of a significant age, 12 and older, and even at that age, it needs to be a combination of high fiber and low fiber sources, so processed and non-processed carbs.”
Parental preparation, he advised, should carry over into the child’s lunch offering, which should be packed at home, rather than parents doling out lunch money.
“When kids are forced to make their own decisions, if they’re not taught to make great decisions, they won’t make good decisions. So parents need to be a little more prepared in terms of packing lunches. The easiest lunch to pack for kids is always sandwiches, even if it’s white bread — sandwich with lettuce and tomatoes between the bread, egg or even tuna salad, fruit, a bottle of water, and giving kids an option between either 100 percent natural juice or a low fat milk. That creates a completely balanced meal for kids.”
Another healthy lunch offering he recommends is pita bread stuffed with spinach leaves and tuna salad with a fruit and a bottle of water.
The nutritionist encourages parents to inspect their child’s lunch bag daily to ensure children actually eat their lunch. Feedback from the child is important to get to an understanding of what the child likes and what they dislike, to ensure success in the types of foods they’re consuming, as well as making great choices.
Ingraham said healthy snacks should always be a part of the equation. A healthy option he said is Goldfish crackers that are low in saturated fat and low in sugar.
“We need to be more mindful of the amount of sodium [salt] and sugars that we’re giving kids, and also the amount of calories they’re consuming on a daily basis.”
Rachel Johnson, 30-something, a mother of three school aged children — twin fourth grade boys and a seventh grade son — said she does her best to ensure that her children eat healthy, even though she gives them $5 a day for lunch when she can’t pack a lunch.
She gets their day started with breakfast at home which she said could run the gamut from an egg sandwich to cold cereal, oatmeal, or sometimes even just tea and bread. Her children can take a packed lunch from their previous day’s dinner or purchase lunch at school.
“The most important thing is I ensure they carry water which they drink, and they don’t buy juice, and they have fruits daily. The school does not sell chips and cookies, so the school itself tries not to sell garbage food. The school also offers tofu. And they have a microwave in the classrooms, so parents have a choice to give them money or for the children to take lunch. You have the option, so you don’t necessarily have to buy lunch,” she said.
Johnson said she always questions her sons about what they purchased with their money. She said sometimes she’s okay with the purchases, and sometimes she’s not.
“My children love to eat healthy and they go for the dinners because they prefer a full meal of rice, a side and meat, sometimes they have macaroni and meat. They give them small portions,” so it’s okay. “But sometimes they buy chicken and fries. And they’re cheap — so they try to save $2 every day, so they may purchase a club sandwich on toast.”
The nutritionist said parents should also make their children aware of what a great snack is and what a bad snack is. He said an understanding of the importance of fruits and vegetable consumption on a daily basis, as well as the importance of sufficient water consumption on a daily basis, is just as important.
“If a child is knowledgeable in a sense that they can make great decisions in terms of getting sufficient amount of water, consuming fruits and vegetables on a daily basis, having a healthy breakfast, having a healthy lunch, then snack time isn’t so much of a worry, because you want to give kids as much calories as possible because they’re growing.
“If a child does not have a good understanding of nutrition and not very active in terms of making a responsible choice, then you want to be concerned with what you’re giving them. For kids that are healthier, the occasional ice cream and sorbets can be consumed. But reading labels as parents helps us to make better choices for our kids as well.”
While children should be eating what parents eat at dinner, Ingraham said the options should be healthy automatically. He said adults should be making the healthy choice and implementing them at home so that children understand the importance of healthy eating throughout their lives.
“There is no better breakfast, no better or worse dinner when it comes to kids, but we need to ensure that kids are getting balanced meals in the evenings — and that means half the plate must be vegetables with fruit, 25 percent of that plate needs to be high fiber sources, and not necessarily whole grain rice or whole grain breads or yellow grits, it can come from vegetable sources or legumes like black beans, red beans, vegetables like sweet potatoes, carrots, mushrooms which are great sources of fiber and provide antioxidants to ensure the child stays healthy long term.”
The nutritionist/corporate wellness coordinator said children should be more active and that parents need to remember that just as adults need energy in to equal energy out, that children need the exact same thing. He said technology has encouraged children to become “couch potatoes.” And that parents should encourage children to go outside for a run, engage in some sport, ride a bike, do jumping jacks, play hide and seek and Simon says.
As children return to the classroom, Ingraham said one thing that makes him cringe is the thought of lunch vendors and what they offer children.
He said healthy eating should start at home and extend outward into the school system; and that parents need to instill that sense of responsibility into their children to the point that they want to make great choices.
“It’s sad to say that a lot of times kids learn from school and not from the household, and they have to take the knowledge from school back into the household to get the change in the household. But it should be the household making the change in the child and them taking that responsibility to school,” said Ingraham.
As children head back to school, the nutritionist/corporate wellness coordinator said parents should be cognizant of the fact that the obesity epidemic that the WHO (World Health Organization) identified in 2011 that more than 50 million children under the age of five were considered overweight is a real fact.
He said obesity is no longer an issue of the adult population, and is a serious problem. “It is actually an issue of almost every generation, even down to the childhood generation,” he said.
Ingraham said BMI (body mass index), which is the measure of body fat based on height and weight is one of the better predictors in determining whether a child is overweight or not. He said in The Bahamas there are children with a BMI greater than 25 which means they are overweight, which he said is alarming.
“BMI is not the best measurement when it comes to kids either, because they’re not fully grown, but just identifying simple things like if a child is growing very quickly, their waist circumference is expanding a lot, and you know the child is not very active — those should be key signs that your child may need attention, and you may need to pay attention to the foods they’re consuming and the level of activities they’re participating in.”
Ingraham urges parents to become interactive with their children by developing an understanding, being visible in their child’s life and understanding what they like and what’s good for them.
“Make time to actually prepare meals and not purchase meals. That’s one of the biggest and greatest success stories you can have for a child,” he said.