Lunch tray with wraps, orange slices and milk

With the new school year upon us, 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. But 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 as 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, you may be 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 midmorning snack, such as yogurt, cheese or a bagel.

Some children believe skipping breakfast may help them lose weight; however, 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 an 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 nutritional 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 healthily will enable them to establish a foundation of good nutrition and healthy lifestyle habits that will benefit them for the rest of their lives.