Back-To-School Nutrition Tips


    Healthy Eating Advice for Parents & Kids with Theresa Shank, Registered Dietitian, Einstein Medical Center Philadelphia

    A healthy day starts with a healthy breakfast. 

    “No matter how old the kid, or adult, everyone needs to eat breakfast,” says Theresa Shank, a registered dietitian with Einstein Medical Center Philadelphia. “Young kids may be used to having relaxed schedules during the summer. But parents should do their best to get the kids up in time to have breakfast, even a quick one. One good option is oatmeal. Use the unflavored variety; it has fewer preservatives and less sugar. Add your own flavor with raisins and cinnamon, and slices of fruit.” Other options are whole grain, low-sugar cereal; low-fat yogurt with slices of fruit; whole grain bread toasted and topped with peanut butter.

    What about instant breakfast shakes and things like Pop Tarts? 

    “Instant breakfast drinks do have some added vitamins and minerals, but I want to pull people away from that quick fix,” Shank explains. “Whole foods have even more vitamins and minerals with less sugar, fat and preservatives. Those are what provide power for our physical and mental activities. Pop Tarts may taste good to kids, but they don’t have nutrients to keep kids feeling sated until snack time or lunch time.”

    What items should be in a healthy lunch box? 

    “Pack sandwiches made of whole wheat bread and filled with good proteins like chicken, peanut butter or deli-sliced turkey,” Shank advises. Why should turkey and other meats be deli-sliced instead of pre-packaged? “If they are fresh-cut, they have fewer preservatives,” she says. “Packed lunch meats are very high in sodium and other chemicals.”

    Instead of packing cookies and candy, give them healthy snacks like Fig Newtons, graham crackers, whole wheat crackers, or low-sugar granola bars, Shank suggests.

    Drinks matter.

    “Avoid Gatorade, vitamin water and energy drinks,” Shank cautions. “By no means are any highly-caffeinated products recommend for children. Your kids should get fuel from the fiber, protein and nutrients that you’ll pack into their food.”

    Shank’s suggestion: Pack a reusable water bottle. Infuse the water with natural flavor by adding slices of lemon, lime, orange or berries. Don’t forget to give them milk or money to buy milk.

    How much milk should kids drink every day?

    “The real question is how many daily servings of dairy kids need to get enough calcium,” Shank clarifies. “The answer is three servings every day. That can be 8 ounces of low-fat milk, 6 ounces of yogurt or cheese.”

    Whole foods options are best, Shank advises. Plastic-wrapped cheese has a lot more sodium than deli-cut cheese. Yogurt sticks have added chemicals and are high in sugar. Instead, Shank suggests, buy small containers and make yogurt and sliced fruit parfaits that are high in calcium and fiber and low in sugar and preservatives.

    What are healthy after-school snacks?

    Shank’s suggestions: celery with peanut butter, whole grain crackers with peanut butter, sliced vegetables with hummus, whole grain tortilla chips with homemade salsa, trail mix and fruit. The goal is to provide nutritionally dense snacks that are high in fiber and protein and low in sugar and fat. “Have the snacks ready in Tupperware or baggies so kids can easily access them instead of reaching for other, less nutritious options — especially if parents aren’t home after school,” Shank says. 

    What are the important components of dinner?

    “Have color in dinner,” Shank advises. “That means having vegetables and, ideally, a variety of them. Also provide lean protein and a whole grain.” Dinner is also a great time to have that third serving of dairy, either with or after the meal. As for evening snacks, Shank cautions against sugary treats. “That upsets kids’ blood sugar and leaves them groggy and irritable in the morning,” she explains, “and that is not a good way to start the day.”