Part 1: Filling in the Gaps of Nutrition Education
It’s often assumed that children will learn everything they need to know about health and wellness at school, but that’s not necessarily the case. I know from personal experience that some major topics are completely skipped and my knowledge of nutrition and how much I should be active, was minimal. I decided to research the specifics of school wellness guidelines. This turned into quite the complex research process. The specifics of these guidelines are not easy to come by. While schools will discuss their commitment to providing balanced meals and a curriculum that includes basic fitness education, how they implement this, is mainly unclear.
To focus on a piece of the health pie, this article will go into the specifics of nutrition education in schools and how parents can reinforce this information at home. It is so important that we create a home life that provides a model for healthy eating habits. Children deal with so much misinformation around health, whether it be from peers or general internet access, but setting a good example at home can be incredibly beneficial at lowering the risks of developing an unhealthy relationship with food.
Upon my research for this article, I found an overview from the National Center for Education Statistics detailing the public school approach to nutrition education. The first line reads: “Practically all public schools (99 percent) offer nutrition education somewhere within the curriculum, and many integrate it within the total curriculum (70 percent). Nutrition education is concentrated within the health curriculum (84 percent), science classes (72 percent), and school health program (68 percent). Although nutrition education is an active area, the intensity and quality of the nutrition messages students are receiving is not known.” (1)
This is quite the shocking first paragraph to read. While schools are required to report they are providing some form of nutrition information, the requirements for how detailed this information is meant to be, varies from school to school. While this study is quite old, new research has not been done on the quality of nutrition education in schools. It appears that while guidelines for providing healthy and balanced meals to students have improved, education on the topic still varies greatly.
The best way to ensure your child receives the nutrition facts they need to develop a healthy relationship with food, is to teach this at home. While a student may learn one thing at school, keep in mind they are consistently exposed to misinformation about dieting online. Social media plays a huge part in the “facts” your child may “learn.” If they see everyday, online, that they should restrict their food intake or other unhealthy eating patterns, but only hear a few minutes a week about factual eating habits, most likely they will retain the misinformation simply because they see it more.
The CDC has a clear overview of the topics a child should be learning in school, relating to nutrition. “Nutrition education should be part of a comprehensive school health education curriculum. As a result of participation in a K–12 health education curriculum that includes nutrition, students should have the knowledge and skills to do the following:”
Eat a variety of whole grain products, fruits and vegetables, and nonfat or low-fat milk or equivalent milk products every day.
Eat the appropriate amounts from each food group every day.
Choose foods that provide ample amounts of vitamins and minerals.
Eat the appropriate amounts of high-fiber foods.
Drink plenty of water.
Limit foods and beverages high in added sugar.
Limit the intake of fat, avoiding foods with saturated and trans fats.
Eat breakfast every day.
Eat healthy snacks.
Eat healthy food when dining out.
Prepare food in healthy ways.
Balance caloric intake with caloric expenditure.
Follow a plan for healthy weight management.
Support others to eat healthy.
This list, if taught thoroughly, would provide a student with all the tools they need to make nutrition a priority in their life, but how detailed this is covered, remains unclear. Perhaps a topic is only covered in a few minutes of a class period, or detailed on a school poster in the cafeteria. Regardless of the extent it is covered, if this information is not reinforced at home, the child may not retain what they learn in school. Also, some school systems may not go into detail on this until high school, and by then an unhealthy relationship with food may have already developed. So it’s important to demonstrate balanced eating at a young age. Below I will detail the 14 CDC guidelines and how to approach them with your child to create a healthy relationship with food.
1) Eat a variety of whole grain products, fruits and vegetables, and nonfat or low-fat milk or equivalent milk products every day.
2) Eat the appropriate amounts from each food group every day.
The best way to achieve a balanced plate is to reference the MyPlate image from the US Department of Agriculture. You can even buy a portion plate like the one in the image below, if portion control is something you are new too. A basic summary of a divided plate includes:
Half a plate of fruit and vegetables and remember to vary them from day to day to cover all your child’s vitamin needs!
A quarter plate of lean protein. This includes: seafood, chicken, turkey or lean cuts of pork and beef
A quarter plate of your grains: pasta, brown rice and tortillas, to name a few. Also, when making a sandwich using a whole grain bread will ensure your child gets those grains in.
Low fat or non fat dairy for bone health. This can be milk or another form, but remember that dairy is important for promoting growth and bone health. Each meal should also contain some form of diary. Again for a sandwich, using a slice of non-fat cheese covers your bases.
3) Choose foods that provide ample amounts of vitamins and minerals.
The key to ensuring you have meals that contain the necessary vitamins and minerals, is variety! Simply put, if you eat meals with protein, carbs and fats, and vary the type of fruits and vegetables you are serving, you’ll cover most of your bases. Your pediatrician may still recommend a multivitamin, but a broad healthy diet is still important. So focus on preparing meals with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans or legumes, low-fat protein sources and dairy!
4) Eat the appropriate amounts of high-fiber foods.
Making sure you get enough fiber is important for bowel health, regulating blood sugar and maintaining a healthy weight. Children 4 and older should aim for 14 grams of fiber per 1000 calories they consume, with most 4-8 year olds needing 25 grams. Typically if a child has fruit or vegetables in each meal, they will easily reach this number. Some of the best high fiber foods include:
Nuts and seeds like coconut, pistachio, walnuts, sunflower seeds, chia seeds and pumpkin seeds. Almonds are particularly high in fiber
Popcorn (preferably unbuttered)
Oats (oatmeal is a fantastic breakfast option!)
Greens: Brussel sprouts, kale, artichokes, broccoli and spinach
5) Drink plenty of water.
Getting plenty of water is important for all of us. The standard range to aim for is 6-8 glasses of water a day for K-8 graders. (8 ounces in a glass) This can also include other beverages besides water, but with balance. With milk, aim for 2-3 glasses a day. Don’t forget that milk is important for bone health! If possible, aim for a non-fat or low-fat milk option. The recommended amount of juice is 4-6 ounces, which is less than a full glass. This is due to the high sugar amounts in juice. Try to provide a low sugar juice if possible!
Now some children just may not like drinking water! So make it fun! There are so many great water bottles out there. There are some that even include times of the day, so you and your child can keep track easier. Maybe get your entire family involved and make it a game! Whoever finishes their water first can pick an activity etc.
The biggest issue with health and wellness goals is that they can seem tedious, so be creative and have fun. Show your child that being healthy isn’t negative!
6) Limit foods and beverages high in added sugar.
Remember that juice we just talked about? If you look at a label for standard juice, below I’ll include the staple Mott’s Apple Juice, you’ll notice the high sugar content of 28g. Children are actually only meant to have up to 25g a day, this is why fruit juices are not recommended! Processed foods also contain a lot of added sugar, especially traditional cereals like lucky charms (a personal favorite of mine as a child).
So look at those nutrition labels and find some healthy swaps for those fruit juices, processed foods and snacks! Aim for under 25g of sugar a day. By filling your pantry with great alternatives, you won’t need to create a restrive mentality with your child either. While we want to maintain a healthy balance, talking about sugar as being “bad” to your child can also create a toxic mindset about food. No food is “bad,” some foods are just better in moderate amounts!
7) Limit the intake of fat, avoiding foods with saturated and trans fats.
Beyond getting more fruits and vegetables in your diet, there are a lot of simple ways to reduce your saturated fat intake. Keep in mind that fats have 9 calories per gram vs. protein and carbs that have 4 calories. Fats are also burned faster and leave you hungry again quickly. Simple swaps include:
Swap ground beef with ground chicken or turkey
Choose lean cuts of meat when possible
Drink reduced fat or fat free milk instead of whole milk
Use egg whites instead of whole eggs
Swap chips with pretzels or unbuttered popcorn
Use seasonings for flavor vs. butter
Instead of cooking with lard or butter, use olive, safflower or sunflower oil. These are healthier fats
Always look at packaged foods and know the fat content!
8) Eat breakfast every day.
We’ve all heard that, “breakfast is the most important meal of the day.” While most nutritionists would agree that breakfast isn’t any more or less important than other meals, it is still the most forgotten meal of the day. Creating healthy breakfast habits are beneficial to all aspects of our life, and especially for children. Skipping breakfast can lead to mental fog, low energy levels, and can lead to long-term unhealthy eating patterns.
We want to teach children that all meals are important and it’s not healthy to skip meals. Also, sitting down and eating breakfast with your child continues fostering a positive relationship with food. The reality is that you may not have time for a sit down meal, as mornings can be a crazy time for us all, so planning ahead is key! If you can meal prep breakfast in advance, it makes things much easier. Some of my go-tos are breakfast casseroles and breakfast egg muffins. You can fill them with whatever you like and throw them in the oven. You’ll then have breakfast for days!
9) Eat healthy snacks.
Below are some healthy snack alternatives you can try out! It’s always recommended that parents eat the same snacks as their children to eliminate food envy!
Chip alternatives like popcorn and veggie chips are great!
Apple or celery with peanut butter
Veggies and hummus
Fresh piece of fruit
Cheese with whole grain crackers
Trail mix or nuts
In general look for snacks that are low in sugar and sodium. Whole grains are great! Look at the protein and fat content. Foods low in fat and high in protein will keep your child full for longer. Also, keep a variety of food in the house and make it fun! Eating healthy should be enjoyable! Another important thing to note is how long after meals is your child hungry again. If they are in need of a snack soon after a main meal, you may want to beef up those meals with some additional protein to better fill them up and keep them full for longer!
10) Eat healthy food when dining out.
This can be a difficult one to navigate. While we don’t want to create a negative view of any food, there are clearly healthier options at each restaurant. The last thing you want to do is tell your child they “can’t eat that. It’s unhealthy!” Some alternatives can be going to restaurants that, in general, serve a healthier menu. Or maybe order a few dishes and split them as a family to ensure some balance is maintained. You can also order your dishes with sauce on the side to limit intake of fat.
While there’s nothing wrong with the occasional unbalanced meal at a restaurant, modeling how to order a healthy meal can show your child that eating-out doesn’t equal eating unhealthy. I myself grew up eating out once a week and my parents always ordered the least healthy item on the menu. Growing up I didn’t even realize that I was doing the same thing. Subconsciously, I equated restaurants to eating unnecessarily large meals with little nutritious content. We often don’t realize we set an example for those around us, and we teach and learn without realizing.
11) Prepare food in healthy ways.
Preparing food in a healthier way has never been easier thanks to inventions like air fryers and crockpots! Air fryers are great for lowering the amount of oil needed for crispy foods. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love some french fries, but deep frying them in vegetable oil adds a lot of unnecessary calories. If you can afford to get an air fryer, I highly recommend it! When pan frying foods, swapping to an olive oil, avocado oil, or spray oil vs butter or lard, also lowers the fat and calorie intake.
A few other easy changes can be reducing the number of meals with cream based sauces. While these cream sauces are undoubtedly delicious, they come with a high calorie and high fat downside. Also, look at your condiments. Lots of dressings are also high in fat and calories and can be easily swaps for more nutritious choices
12) Balance caloric intake with caloric expenditure.
Knowing how much your child should eat can be quite challenging! Most of the time people either vastly undereat or vastly overeat. Below I am including a chart of average caloric needs based on activity levels and age. It’s important for children to know that while they need to eat more calories if they live an active lifestyle, like playing sports, that doesn’t mean when they are not as active, that they should starve themselves. Social media often targets youth audiences with information about “low-calorie diets.” Reinforcing the importance of food for energy, growth and mental health is of utmost importance in combating toxic misinformation.
13) Follow a plan for healthy weight management.
Now with children it’s important not to create a diet-culture mentality at home. Following the tips above will establish a healthy plan for you, and by filling your home with some healthier alternatives and having balanced meals, you won’t need to be restrictive. Also, while eating healthy is important, it’s equally important to allow for flexibility. If you only keep healthy options at home and no “fun foods,” your child may look elsewhere for them. We all want what we can’t have. So make sure you are flexible and refrain from setting guidelines for “good” and “bad” foods. ALL FOODS ARE OK IN MODERATION. This is not something most people realize, and end up eliminating unnecessary foods, while establishing a toxic relationship with food that will continue into adult years.
14) Support others to eat healthy.
The environment around eating healthy does impact adherence. If your child witnesses you frowning and choking down foods you say are “healthy,” they are less likely to want to try them. That’s not to say, as a parent, you should eat foods you hate, instead get options you like and enjoy. There are way too many alternatives out there for anyone to “hate” what they eat. Finding that balance of foods you enjoy and are good for you, leads to long-term patterns. The goal of eating healthy is to find your way of approaching food that you can maintain.
Also, think of play-dates as another healthing-eating support system. Provide snacks for your child and their friends that are good for them but fun. Maybe making a healthier cookie option like oatmeal chocolate chip, or they can make their own food creations with veggies and hummus or peanut butter. There are so many ways to approach food that allow for creativity and fun!
As parents, you'll face a lot of challenges, but creating balanced meals shouldn't be one of them! Hope this helps and join me next week when I discuss youth fitness needs. Does your child get all the exercise they need in school?? How can I make fitness fun for my children?? And so much more!
Until next time... and remember fitness is for all!
“Nutrition Education in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools,” National Center for Education Statistics, accessed March 28,2021 https://nces.ed.gov/surveys/frss/publications/96852/.
“School Health Guidelines To Promote Healthy Eating and Physical Activity,” Center for Disease Control and Prevention, September 6, 2011. Accessed March 28,2021 https://www.cdc.gov/healthyschools/npao/pdf/mmwr-school-health-guidelines.pdf.
“How Much Water Should Kids Drink,” Very Well Family, February 14, 2020. Accessed March 28. 2021 https://www.verywellfamily.com/keep-them-hydrated-water-for-kids-1257128.
“Energy In: Recommended Food & Drink Amounts For Children,” HealthyChildren.org, January 1, 2020. Accessed March 28, 2021 https://www.healthychildren.org/English/healthy-living/nutrition/Pages/Energy-In-Recommended-Food-Drink-Amounts-for-Children.aspx.