Summer has flown by, but with only a few more weeks left of freedom, make sure your kids are geared up for a healthy school year. Pediatric occupational therapist Marissa Edwards, pediatrician Dr. Denise Lippitt and American Dietetics Association spokesperson Sarah Krieger offer their insight.
Marissa, who works at North Shore Pediatric Therapy in Chicago, offers her best tip for calming back-to-school nerves: Take your kids to their classroom—and even to meet their teacher, if possible—during the last week of summer. Use pictures to make a visual schedule of what their first day of school will look like, and set up a playdate with other students in their future classes, she says. Getting comfortable with new—and old—faces can help take the edge off.
If your kids have spent the summer staying awake until sunrise, Dr. Lippitt, who practices at Medical Center Pediatrics in West Bloomfield, Michigan, suggests getting kids on a school-appropriate sleep schedule at least a week or two before school starts. However, she says, "They ought to have a good sleep hygiene the whole year round." Feeding Bodies and Brains
According to Sarah, who practices dietetics at All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg, Florida, protein and fiber are the two most important foods to start your kids' days off right. Hard-boiled eggs, cottage cheese and nut butters are all filling protein options, she says. And if your children aren't fans of typical breakfast foods, think about serving leftovers. Chicken, a turkey sandwich and even pork tenderloin are better at the early hours than a breakfast without protein.
Even when your teenagers are running late, Dr. Lippitt suggests handing them a bag of nuts, veggies or cereal for the road. Don't let them convince you to give them a protein bar as a substitute. Fiber, she says, does the best job at keeping your body fueled for extended periods of time. Bananas, apples and whole grain toast are all great options, and Sarah suggests trying oatmeal before school exams and standardized tests to ensure they have sustained energy.
Although kids may disagree, eating sugar on an empty stomach will only increase their cravings for sweets. "If [your kids] have just a doughnut for breakfast or a soda, they feel great for an hour and then they're hungry again, so they go for more of the same," Sarah says. "That's why the protein and the fiber are so good first thing in the morning: They'll be maintained for the next couple of hours instead of creating peaks and valleys of energy." What Can Kids Drink?
As a general rule, Dr. Lippitt discourages just about everyone—and especially children—from drinking caffeine. "It's one more thing that disrupts sleep, which in turn makes you more susceptible to going down hard, which adds to your stress load," she says. "I limit caffeine wherever I can."
Sarah says caffeine stays in your system for seven hours on average. While she recognizes that teenagers like to convene at coffee houses, drinking caffeine in the afternoon isn't a healthy choice.
For quenching thirst, Sarah and Dr. Lippitt both believe water to be the best option, but they prefer milk to juice. "You want to keep a lid on the empty calories," Dr. Lippitt says, which, for kids under 8-years-old, means no more than 4 to 6 ounces of juice (100 percent fruit only) per day. Brown-Bag Their Lunch
During the school day, it's pretty common for kids to have an allotted—but very short—lunch period at school, which is why it's so important to pack finger foods, Sarah says. In the cafeteria, nutrition made simple has a much better shot of getting eaten than any kind of messy meal.
Start with a sandwich: whole grain bread with nut butter, turkey, low-fat cheese or another type of lean protein. In addition, Sarah says making a mixture of fruits and vegetables—like carrots, dried cranberries and grapes—in one container stops those healthier foods from being ignored. "They're more likely to eat the vegetables if they're with the fruit," she says. "It's the kids' version of a salad."
If you have raised a "PB&J only" child but find out that her classmate has a peanut allergy, Sarah says seed butters—made from things like pumpkin seeds or sunflower seeds—are a great alternative. Such spreads are often made in a peanut-free environment. Healthy Snack Ideas
After-school snacks are a great way to give your kids the nutrients they may have missed earlier in the day. Dr. Lippitt suggests fruits and vegetables, and if celery sticks are a tough sell, she says a little hummus or ranch dip is a perfect addition.
However, rather than allowing your kids to eat their way through the afternoon, Sarah says to serve them dinner in place of an after-school snack, a method she practices in her own home. "The purpose of this," she says, "is so they're not grazing on empty-calorie foods all afternoon: candies, high-sugared cereals, fruit drinks. Give them their dinner at 4 p.m., and then sit down as a family at 7 p.m., and they can have their small snack."
If your kids spend the afternoon in childcare, Sarah suggests packing an extra snack in their lunch to save to tide them over until dinner. Although they may be provided a snack, you won't be able to guarantee it's nutritious. Get Active After School
Give your kids a mental break, especially if they didn't have an opportunity to let loose during gym class or recess. "It doesn't have to be hours," Dr. Lippitt says. "But 20 or 30 minutes of an 8-year-old throwing a ball back and forth outside will certainly help unwind their brain and unwind their body before they hit the books."
Don't discount the chemical influences a little heavy breathing can add. Sarah finds that the endorphins that kick into your brain during exercise are really helpful for clear thinking, stress relieving and helping your children explain how they're feeling. Sarah says she finds it amazing how quickly the lines of communication open once you simply take them outside to play a game of tag.
She encourages families to exercise together—and even to race. If your children aren't competitive, try walking and running in unison with them in 30-second intervals. The bottom line, though, is to find something they really enjoy, Sarah says. Be it basketball, swimming or even hula hooping, "If they find something they like, it'll stay with them—hopefully for life," she says. The Benefits of Family Dinner Time
Having dinner on the table early doesn't have to mean ending your day early. Sarah finds that preplanning dinner makes it easier and more likely that you'll feed your kids a home-cooked meal rather than one that's fresh out of the plastic.
If you have time on the weekends, she suggests making larger portions of turkey chili, roasted chicken, various soups and casseroles such as lasagna. "Lean proteins and complex carbohydrates with lots of fruits and vegetables—those are the building blocks of growing bodies, so those are the things that will help our kids perform the best," Sarah says.
Dr. Lippitt also recommends not grabbing dinner on the run. By sitting down to a meal, your kids are much more likely to eat proper portions and, as an added bonus, keep you informed of their lives. "As a parent, you find out about school, about what test your child had," Dr. Lippitt says. "It's better than having them plugged into an iPod in the backseat when you drive through McDonald's." Are Sweets Ever Okay?
If you want your children to avoid sugar, Sarah says you shouldn't be bringing it into the house. Set the example by keeping your cabinets stocked with healthy snacks, and try your best to limit your kids' junk food intake to birthday parties.
There is, of course, a gray area. Sarah feels that a small amount of sweets a day is better for children than never at all; if they're forbidden, they'll want it even more. "Having a cookie or two with lunch is healthy. Having a whole package of cookies after school every day? Not so healthy," she says.
One approach she takes is to serve dessert with the meal, instead of after the meal. That way, your kids will lose the mentality of eating everything on their plate and then having more for dessert. Reduce Couch Potato Time
In Sarah's after-school program, Fit for All Kids, the hours spent on the computer, watching TV and playing video games are called "nonproductive butt time." Aside from going to the movies on weekends, she says to limit such activity to an hour a day if possible.
Since it's so easy to resort to the couch, Sarah says to have activity options ready to go. Whether it's spending time on the playground or running around the house, always have a plan...and a rainy-day backup.
Dr. Lippitt also firmly believes in keeping the television out of a child's bedroom. "Studies show that TV jazzes up your brain, keeps you awake and prohibits you from getting into a good sleep cycle," she says. Get Plenty of Sleep
Despite what your kids may think, they rely on sleep to perform well in school. Dr. Lippitt says that five or six hours of sleep a night are definitely not enough. And while eight or nine may suffice for a teenager, the younger your kids are, the more sleep they need. In fact, Dr. Lippitt encourages children 5 to 7 years old to sleep a full 9.5 to 10 hours.
Regardless of their changing schedules, kids should do their best to maintain consistency in their sleep patterns. "Catching up on the weekends? It doesn't work that way," Dr. Lippitt says. "You need to get enough sleep each night."
From a preventative standpoint, she says kids who aren't getting enough sleep are at higher risk of getting infections. For your high school students especially, this can lead to mono and other illnesses. "The only thing you can do is try to eat well and sleep well. Both stress and depression are for sure exaggerated when you haven't slept," Dr. Lippitt says.