It's cupcake day again in class, at hockey practice, and at a friend's house after school. When your children leave for the day, they may face a daily diet of unhealthy foods.
Sure, too much bad food can cause unhealthy weight gain in kids. But that's not the only reason you want your kids to eat right. Nutritious food not only fuels their growth, it gives them energy to be active. Healthy foods are filling and cut down on cravings. Unfortunately, while you're doing your best to teach good habits, you're not the only one feeding your child.
"I was just shocked by the amount of junk food my kids were getting in school, and it started in preschool," says Stacy Whitman, an Idaho mom of three and creator of the blog School Bites. "My efforts to feed them healthy foods were being undermined."
Here are seven ways parents can push for better foods, from day care to T-ball practices to high school cafeterias.
1. Be a Room Parent
Work with your child's teacher to plan just one treat day each month for birthdays and other events. Help create healthy guidelines for the treats parents bring to class. The teacher won't have to play "food cop." Kids and families may learn about better foods and learn to like them, too!
Ask a dietitian for ideas. Fruit kabobs with yogurt dipping sauce can be a sweet birthday treat.
2. Plan a Walk-a-Thon Instead of a Bake Sale
Students can ask family and friends to pledge money for each lap around a track. Kids end up with better health instead of sugary treats.
3. Organize the Team Snack Schedule
From little kids’ soccer to high school tennis, parents often bring drinks and snacks for the team. Work with the coach or league to create a list of healthy choices. Water is the best beverage -- with no unnecessary calories or sugar that they'd get in juices or sports drinks. But don't active kids need sports drinks? "For the most part, children don't need them," says Janet M. de Jesus, MS, RD, a nutritionist with the We Can! program.
Good snack choices include cantaloupe chunks, orange slices, lunch-box size apples, or other fruits.
4. Inspire Better Food Choices
Help start a school vegetable garden, a visiting program with a local farm, or a healthy cooking class. It'll make veggies and fresh foods appealing to the children. The school's home economics or consumer science teacher might agree to be a sponsor and be happy to have your help.
5. Pack Lunch
If the choices in the cafeteria aren't good for your child, switch to a brown-bag lunch. Let her help buy and prepare the food. When kids help in the kitchen, they are more likely to eat what they make. Consider whole-grain pita pocket sandwiches stuffed with hummus and cucumber slices, or chopped chicken salad with sliced grapes and walnuts.
6. Join a School Wellness Committee
Find out whether the school lunches, a la carte offerings, and vending machines meet current nutrition standards. The USDA web site has a "The School Day Just Got Healthier" tool kit that can help. If your school isn’t up to snuff yet, why not? Does the kitchen need better facilities to cook fresh food? Better food suppliers? Better recipes? Should your district remove the deep-fat fryers, as they did in Chicago public schools?
7. Start a Better Fund-Raiser
School clubs and teams don't have to sell candy or soda anymore to buy uniforms or tubas. Help your school make the switch to oranges, kitchen storage containers, pumpkins, or holiday wreaths. Push for better choices at game-time concession stands, too.
Inform, Educate, and Change
Changing the foods people expect may ruffle some feathers. "The teachers give you push back," says de Jesus. "They say, 'The kids aren't going to like this food.'"
Explain the health benefits of a menu change. Combine that with exercise and it's a win-win. Kids who eat healthy and who are active have more energy and are more likely to concentrate and get better grades.
Still unsure? Schools can try out new, healthier dishes for a few weeks to see which ones work, and to get kids used to the change.
With a healthy "treat day" in place in her son’s class, Stacy Whitman says her son came home with a happy request: "Mom, could we have popcorn and watermelon on my birthday, too?"