Nutrition and health


Back-to-school nutrition

James E. Meyer, Nutrition Specialist & County Program Director, Ralls County, University of Missouri Extension


School lunch trayAs a new school year approaches, parents should be reminded of the important role nutrition plays in assuring kids a successful school year. Nutrition and learning go hand in hand. Kids who are nutritionally fit are more likely to have the energy, stamina and self-esteem that enhance their ability to learn. As they run out the door with thoughts of seeing old classmates, joining new clubs, participating in school sports and getting good grades, kids will not be paying much attention to the proper nutrition needed to accomplish all of this.


Here are a few tips suggested by the American Dietetic Association on practical, easy ways to help ensure both proper nutrition and a successful school year.


Start with a healthy breakfast.


It is often said that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, yet 35 to 40 percent of all Americans skip breakfast. The statistics for children are just as alarming — as many as 48 percent of girls and 32 percent of boys do not eat breakfast every day. Additionally, for many children, breakfast is a trip to a convenience store or a vending machine for a soda and a high-fat, high-sugar pastry. This is definitely not the best choice for the nutrients they need nor is it cheap.


For children and teens, a morning meal is especially important to prepare them to meet the challenges of learning. Many studies have shown that those who eat a morning meal tend to perform better in school, score higher on tests, have higher school attendance and less tardiness, and have better concentration and muscle coordination. Also, kids who eat breakfast have fewer hunger-induced stomachaches and are less likely to be overweight.


Having said all that, are you wondering how to get a child to eat breakfast? Where will the extra time needed for a morning meal come from? You can make breakfast fun by planning it with your child. Decide who prepares what and work together to get it done. If your child doesn’t like traditional breakfast foods, don’t worry — breakfast foods can be any food they like, even a slice of pizza. Keep quick-to-fix foods on hand or get breakfast foods ready the night before, such as mixing a pitcher of juice. If kids say they are not hungry, start them out with something light like juice or toast and send them off with a nutritious mid-morning snack such as yogurt, cheese or a bagel.


Some children believe skipping breakfast may help them lose weight. Just the opposite is true. Skipping meals often leads to overeating later in the day. If you get too hungry it can lead to a lack of control and the inability to determine when you are full. This can result in consuming more calories than if you had eaten an appropriate breakfast.


Choose a nutritious lunch.


As for lunch, meals served at school contribute significantly to kids’ overall nutrient and energy needs. Do you know what they are eating? In most schools nationwide, meals are regulated through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). With USDA guidance, many schools have improved the nutritional quality of lunch and designed the meals to supply about one-third of a child’s nutrition needs. The current meal standards include increased availability of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, reduced sodium, and age-specific calorie guidelines.

Parents can play a role in helping a child choose healthful meals in several ways. Keep the school lunch menu in your kitchen and talk with your child about the importance of choosing and eating nutritious foods. Get involved and work with school staff to form a parent advisory committee for the school food service program. Support the nutrition education efforts at your school. Through Family Nutrition Education Programs (FNEP), educators go into many schools in Missouri to teach nutrition to kids. Contact your local University of Missouri Extension office to see if an FNEP educator can come to your school.

If your child prefers to brown bag it to school, let your child help plan and prepare school lunches. When they are involved in the process, chances are they will resist trading their carrots. Pack nutritious meals that are easy to prepare and fun to eat. A few examples are sandwiches, raw veggies, crackers, string cheese, whole fruit, yogurt or pudding.


Have healthy after-school snacks readily available.


Finally, for after-school snacks, choose foods that supply needed nutrients that can be missed in meal choices. Stock up with ready-to-eat fruits and vegetables, animal crackers, popcorn and cereal. Your child will appreciate the availability of quick healthy snacks.

Proper nutrition is crucial for social, emotional and psychological development. Teaching children how to eat healthy will enable them to establish a foundation of good nutrition and healthful lifestyle habits that will benefit them for the rest of their lives.

Protein Intake Crucial to Surgery Recovery

If you’ve been an active, independent adult for most of your life, suddenly finding yourself a patient can be a mixture of frustration and challenge.  There are always do’s and don’ts following surgery, but good nutrition is crucial to speed wound healing, improve immunity and ensure the best outcome.  Susan Mills-Gray, Nutrition Specialist with MU Extension shares, “As a recent knee surgery patient, I planned ahead to make sure that my post-operative diet had plenty of heart-healthy, low-fat protein.  Research is conclusive that this one of many tools that increases one’s ability to recover quicker.”   It doesn’t matter if you’ve had a joint replaced; a hysterectomy or a bypass operation, the body requires extra nutrients to heal, so focusing on nutrition can mean the difference between bouncing back and a lengthy recovery.

On average, a person can expect to lose 5 to 10 percent of total body weight after surgery.  Protein is needed to repair tissue, slow muscle loss and decrease the inflammatory phase. Recent research has shown good results healing wounds with protein consumption of 0.84 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day.  For example, a 180-pound female who had major surgery would need about 150 grams of protein per day (180 x .84).  “Keep in mind the average amount of protein for someone this weight is only about 75 grams, so this is a substantial increase,” adds Mills-Gray.  If you’re not sure how much protein you may need, ask to speak with the registered dietician associated with the hospital.

After surgery, medications, fatigue and complications can make eating unappealing. The mouth and throat can be sore or dry, medicine can make food taste metallic, and even the sense of smell can be diminished. In these circumstances, it’s best to experiment to see what’s the most appealing. Also, eat small portions throughout the day, standard portions can seem overwhelming to someone who does not feel well.

Choose low-fat meats, poultry, fish and dairy, as well as beans, nuts and seeds.  Other tips to make meals more desirable include marinating meat to improve flavor; adding herbs or spices (if tolerated) to bland foods; incorporating flavored protein powder into whole-food shakes; and trying hard candy, strong chewing gum or lemonade to relieve dry mouth and perk up taste buds.

For more information, contact your local MU Extension center or this faculty directly at

(Sources: Tina Ruggiero, M.S., R.D., L.D., USDA, NIH)

Dried Fruit – Smart Choice or Health Risk?

We know fruit is healthy, so can dried fruit meet our daily needs?  Dried fruit is high in fiber, which is essential for maintaining a healthy digestive system. Dried fruit can help relieve constipation, lower blood cholesterol and keep your stomach full and satisfied.  Dried fruit is also high in potassium and iron. Depending on the specific drying process and treatments used, sulfur dioxide, a common additive, can preserve vitamins A and C.  “Dried fruit is great choice for a portable, nutritious snack, but there are drawbacks,” says Susan Mills-Gray, Nutrition/Health Specialist with MU Extension.

“Many dried fruits have added sulfites, so for those who are allergic to sulfites, make sure to choose organic dried fruits,” shares Mills-Gray.  She adds, “Also, between pretreatment and dehydration processes, there is actually nutrient loss, for example, B vitamins.” Also, dried fruits are calorically dense. One cup of fresh apricot halves has 74 calories, while about 1/4 cup of dried apricot halves (its equivalent) has 313 calories (more than four times the amount).

While nibbling on dried fruits can be a great alternative to munching on cookies, crackers, candies and other snacks, consume them in moderation; just because they're fruit, doesn't mean you should eat them in large amounts.  While fresh fruits contain more vitamins and minerals than dried fruits, both count toward the suggested daily two to three servings of fruit. Stick to fresh fruit as much as possible, and when you still want dried fruits, choose varieties without added sugars. 

For more information, contact your local University of Missouri Extension Center, or this faculty member directly at

Tracking weight loss accurately

It’s a new year and like so many, you may be trying to lose weight. Should you weigh daily? Invest in an expensive weight scale? Is weighing yourself even the best option to track loss? “Being able to track real weight loss is important for motivation and progress, “shares Susan Mills-Gray, Nutrition Specialist with University of Missouri Extension.

Research shows that weighing regularly tends to help more of us be successful at losing or maintaining weight loss. Weighing once a week is usually enough, because you can become discouraged by the minor fluctuations that you may see day to day or even throughout a day. If you do weigh daily, check your weight at the same time each day – right after rising and using the toilet is a good time – then take an average over the week. If your average weight increases for two straight weeks, then its real weight that you need to address. “Various factors can cause your weight to fluctuate throughout the day and week, such as sodium intake, fluid intake, even medications.” adds Mills-Gray, “So focusing on weighing weekly or figuring an average for the week gives you the most realistic snapshot of your weight.”
If you want to monitor your weight, any basic bathroom scale — dial or digital — that gives consistent readings is sufficient. Models that have advanced options may give you more information, but are rarely more accurate. When shopping try out different models — sit the scale on an even floor, weigh yourself several times to see if the reading is the same. Keep in mind that when you shift from side to side the reading shouldn’t change.

You may be increasing physical activity — keep in mind as you gain muscle you may also gain weight! “Judging progress toward better health solely on your weight number on a scale may be disheartening for many. I suggest you use the waist measurement method for tracking true progress.” says Mills-Gray. Place a tape measure at the narrowest point between your lower rib and the top of your hip bone. The tape should be snug, but not cutting into the skin. If you can’t fine the narrowest point, measure just above your belly button. Stand straight and breathe out normally — don’t suck in your belly! Just like the recommendation for weighing, do this first thing in the morning before eating. If your measurement is 37 inches or higher for a male, or 32 inches or higher for a female, you are at increased risk for health challenges. Readings over 40 or men and 35 for women represent significant increased risk for poor health.

For more information contact your local MU Extension Center or Susan Mills-Gray, Nutrition and Health Specialist at or by phone 816-380-8460.

(Sources: University of California-Berkeley Wellness Letter, February 2013; NIH; American Diabetes Association)

Pay attention to your child’s good behavior

All children will misbehave at times. Parents often try to teach children by spending a lot of time attending to their misbehavior.  But when children behave appropriately, parents sometimes miss the opportunity to acknowledge it. When parents focus on children’s misbehavior, the information that children receive is generally negative, threats, or criticism which may lead children to misbehave more. Think about this — if you were criticized all the time and were not given credit for things you did right and good, how would you feel? Children have the same feelings and reaction.

If a parent ignores good behaviors and always criticizes the child and pays attention to bad or annoying behaviors, the child begins to talk back, or argue, and then the parent gets angry. This pattern becomes a negative cycle. Bad behaviors will occur more often in the future.

According to Dr. Alan Kazdin of Yale University Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic, “attention to bad behavior increases bad behavior (yelling, lecturing, scolding, spanking and punishing are all forms of negative attention), while attention to good behavior increases good behavior.” Clearly, catching your children being good can help increase good behavior.

When you really like what your child is doing, tell them right away. Be specific to praise the action, words, or behavior to let the child know what it was he did right. For instance, saying “I like how you clean your room” is more effective than saying “You are a good boy.” Use a smile, give them a hug, a high five, or a touch on the child’s shoulder.

Every child needs attention. It is better to give them positive attention for good behavior than negative attention for misbehavior. Don’t save attention for perfect behavior. Pay attention to your child for good or appropriate behavior. The more immediate your positive attention to your child’s good behavior, the more likely your child will associate the good feelings with the behavior he did and will do more positive behavior. Show your enthusiasm and let your child see how thrilled you are with their good behavior.

Nina Chen, Human Development Specialist, University of Missouri Extension

Becoming more resilient

Life is challenging, we all know that. But many of us wonder why some people seem to have better coping skills? What are the secrets for people who are able to navigate through tough times and bounce back? Dr. Robert Brooks at Harvard Medical School indicated “some people are naturally more resilient.” But resilience can also be learned. Here are some suggestions to build resilience:

Make connections with others. Stay connected with family members, friends, people who can help you celebrate good times, listen to you and provide support through tough times. Social support and friendships are very important for building resilience and improving self-worth. Resilient people have good friendships, supportive relationships and strong social connections.

Have a positive and optimistic attitude. Resilient people are generally optimistic and see things from the bright side when facing difficult situations or crises. One study conducted at University of San Francisco found that caregivers who did not find positive meaning in their caregiving were more likely to become depressed after their loved one passed away. Positive attitudes enable people to have hope and confidence in their abilities to make changes. Flexibility, accepting change and making adjustments help resilient people put their energy into things they can control and let go of things they cannot change.

Give back. Many people find that they become happier and more resilient by helping others. This experience helps build a sense of competence and fulfillment. Research shows that giving back to the community and helping others is a great tool for resilient people.

>Be humorous and playful. Resilient people are playful and laugh at themselves or find humor in a situation even when dealing with difficult events. They learn to deal with stress instead of being stressed. They also learn from their experience and adapt quickly.

Be spiritual. Resilient people are spiritual. According to a Duke University study, those people who participate in religious activities were less likely to experience depression. Even when they experience depression, their depression lifted faster than those people who were less religious. People who are active in religion are likely to cope with stress and difficult times better.

Stay healthy. Eating right and being physically active on a regular basis are also important components in coping with stress. Resilient people take care of themselves, get enough sleep and find ways to relax to stay healthy physically and mentally. When people are in good physical and mental health, they deal with distractions and tough events better and have an easier time bouncing back.

Nina Chen, Human Development Specialist, University of Missouri Extension