Daily Dose – Healthy meals for busy families: Easy back-to-school nutrition tips

Back-to-school can mean hectic mornings, busy evenings on the go and little time to prepare fresh, healthy meals. But the good news is there are simple, easy ways to ensure your child gets the nutrition they need with meals they’ll enjoy. Andrea Lockard, a pediatric dietitian at Atrium Health Levine Children’s Healthy Futures, shares her top tips to make healthy eating easier for kids and parents alike.

Why nutrition matters for kids and teens

“Kids and teens are constantly growing, and nutrition is essential for lifelong health,” says Lockard. “I see nutrition as preventive care. Good nutrition helps kids and teens perform better in school, have more energy, and feel better inside and out.”

Fortunately, your child doesn’t need a “perfect” diet to be healthy.

“There’s no perfect diet, especially when life becomes hectic,” she says. “Be easy on yourself. Have meal options for hard days, but also push to provide a balanced meal — including different food groups and a colorful plate — for dinner most days.”

Back-to-school breakfast tips

A common concern Lockard hears from parents is that their children aren’t hungry for breakfast. If that’s the case in your family, she suggests a “snack for breakfast” that includes at least two food groups: choose from protein, vegetables, fruits and grains/starches. Two simple options are peanut butter crackers or applesauce and string cheese.

“I work on developing a habit first and then once the habit of eating something every morning is established, I talk about what makes a filling and balanced breakfast,” she says.

How about if your kid is a picky eater? Unfortunately, there’s no magic trick to get kids to suddenly like a variety of foods. Instead, Lockard recommends consistently offering new foods, even foods your child doesn’t like — they may give the food a chance after a few tries.  

Packing healthy school lunches

If your child takes a packed lunch to school, Lockard recommends including three to four food groups, including protein, vegetables, fruit and starches/grains. By focusing on getting a variety of food groups, you’ll ensure your child gets more vitamins and nutrients from their meals.

“Kids and families can be as creative as they want with this,” she says. “It promotes balance and exposure to different food groups.”

Here are some ideas from each food group:

Protein: Roasted chicken, deli turkey meat, tuna salad, hardboiled eggs, string cheese, low-sugar yogurt, nut or seed butter, sliced meat from dinner the night before or baked chicken tenders

Vegetables: Carrot or celery sticks, roasted vegetables from dinner, salad greens, kale chips, cucumber slices or broccoli with ranch dip

Fruit: Sliced apples, applesauce, berries or grapes

Starches/grains: Baked or roasted sweet potatoes or regular potatoes, whole grain bread, brown rice, whole grain crackers, whole wheat cereal or whole wheat pasta

Mix and match based on your family’s preferences, leftovers and what you have on hand.

A healthier cafeteria lunch

If your child buys lunch at school, Lockard recommends encouraging them to add a fruit or veggie to their tray (many school lunches include fruits and vegetables) and to take at least one bite so they become more comfortable eating these foods. Encourage them to get three to four food groups on their plate: protein, fruit, vegetables and starches/grains.

If your child tends not to eat much of their school lunch, they can become excessively hungry, which can lead to overeating after school. This, Lockard says, is where healthy snacks come in.

Healthy back-to-school snacks

“Snacks are a good thing, in my opinion,” says Lockard. “However, I encourage families to have structured snack times to avoid grazing. I prefer snacks in between meals, which is helpful for kids to not go into a meal overly hungry and then possibly overeat.”

A good snack includes two food groups to help them stay full.

“I encourage two food groups, so children don’t fill up on only one,” she says. “For example, it can take a lot of chips to fill up, so if you add something else with it, you may not need as many chips.”

Lockard recommends adding protein to snacks whenever possible because it digests more slowly than other foods and helps keep hunger at bay for longer.

Nutritious dinners on busy weeknights

Many families are on the go on weeknights, which can make preparing dinner a challenge. Here are Lockard’s tips to simplify family dinners.

Cook once, eat multiple times. When you have time to prepare dinner at home, make enough for two to three meals so you can serve leftovers throughout the week.

Buy premade meals. “A go-to for many of us in our office is picking up a rotisserie chicken, a frozen vegetable or salad kit, and some sort of easy starch if desired,” she says.

Make smart restaurant choices. Sometimes, it’s easiest to dine at a restaurant or get takeout. If that’s the case, Lockard recommends choosing grilled options, vegetable or fruit sides, salads and water over a caloric drink.

Eat dinner around the same time each day. “Meal structure for families is so important,” she says. “I recommend offering meals at set times so your child knows when to expect them. I also really encourage families not to allow meal substitutions unless there are allergies or health conditions involved. This encourages kids to try new foods and makes meals much simpler for parents.”

While healthy meals require some effort, there are ways to simplify back-to-school breakfasts, lunches and dinners so your kids and teens get the nutrition they need to power through class, extracurriculars and social activities. For more ways to help your child thrive, find an Atrium Health Levine Children’s pediatrician near you.