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Good Eats for School-Age Kids

How you feed your kid now can inspire healthy eating habits for a lifetime.

How you feed your kid now can inspire healthy eating habits for a lifetime. New friends and activities change a school-age child's perspective on food. But it's still up to parents to provide kids with the foods they need to thrive.

Here's some expert advice on how you can do that, as well as set the stage for your child to learn healthy eating habits for life.

The Family Rules

Your child is probably spending more time than ever away from home, what with school, activities, and friends. Teachers, coaches, and peers may also influence a child's food preferences. Many lifelong food habits are established between the ages of 6 and 12, says Tara Ostrowe, MS, RD, a nutritionist and exercise physiologist in New York. During this time in particular, parents should try to display the same behaviors of healthy eating and regular exercise they would like their child to have for life.

Leading by example is so important at this age, says Theresa Nicklas, DrPH, professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. Rather than insisting your children finish their broccoli or drink their milk, show them you enjoy these foods. Be authoritative at the table, not authoritarian, Nicklas says.

Set the Table for Good Nutrition

Eating a variety of nutrient-rich foods -- such as whole grains, fat-free and low-fat dairy foods, lean protein, fruits, and vegetables -- at meals and snacks provides the calories and nutrients a school-age child needs to learn and play.

How will you know your child's getting enough of the right foods?  MyPlate, the latest edition of the government's food guidance system, can help. MyPlate reflects the recommendations in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA).

MyPlate's suggested servings are based on age, gender, and activity level. The examples below illustrate how school-age children's needs differ.

A 6-year-old girl who gets less than 30 minutes of exercise needs this every day:

  • 4 ounces from grains group
  • 1 1/2 cups from vegetable group
  • 1 cup from fruit group
  • 2 1/2 cups from dairy group
  • 3 ounces from protein foods group
  • 4 teaspoons oils

An 11-year-old active boy who gets 30 to 60 minutes of physical activity every day needs this on a daily basis:

  • 6 ounces from grains group
  • 2 1/2 cups from vegetable group
  • 2 cups from fruit group
  • 3 cups from dairy group
  • 5.5 ounces from protein foods group
  • 6 teaspoons oils

Foster a Healthy Weight

Serve healthy foods in the suggested amounts, and let your child take it from there. Monitoring every morsel out of concern for a child's weight could encourage an eating disorder such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia later on in life.

Allowing kids to eat when they are hungry and stop when full is the key to lifelong weight control. Using food to bribe, punish, or reward encourages a child to ignore hunger cues. Buy your children a book or small toy instead of an ice-cream cone when you want to show them you are pleased, says Ostrowe.

Even better, take a walk or bike ride with your son or daughter. According to the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, children need 60 minutes of daily physical activity.  Many youngsters don't come close.

Television and computer games are partly to blame for kids' sedentary habits. Limiting screen time goes a long way toward good health. Studies show that children who watch less than two hours of television daily are more likely to be physically active and have a better diet than kids who watch more, Ostrowe tells WebMD.

Inadequate physical activity and excess calorie consumption, particularly from the high-fat and sugar-laden foods kids favor, add up to extra body fat that a school-aged child may never lose. A study in the British Medical Journal illustrates the importance of establishing habits that encourage a healthy weight at a young age. Researchers who tracked nearly 6,000 British adolescents for five years found that if a child was overweight by age 11, he was likely to be so at age 15, too. Many overweight teens go on to become overweight adults.

Build Strong Bones

Foods such as sweetened soft drinks, french fries, and candy are usually to blame for the extra calories that result in overweight. To make matters worse, these choices take the place of more nutritious foods. For example, children who drink more soft drinks, such as soda and sports beverages, drink less milk, says Ostrowe.

Excluding calcium-rich beverages such as milk leads to a shortfall in calcium and vitamin D at a time when your child needs more than ever.

By age 9, calcium needs increase to 1,300 milligrams a day. MyPlate recommends 3 cups of fat-free or low-fat (1%) milk for everyone 9 and older to help satisfy the need for calcium and vitamin D, which works with calcium to promote fracture-resistant bones in adolescence and beyond. Females form about 90% of the bone mass they will ever have by age 18, and males achieve that by age 20.

Drinking milk is the easiest way to build bone because it provides both calcium and vitamin D, says Christina Economos, PhD, associate professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University.

Eight ounces of yogurt or 1 1/2 ounces of hard cheese each contain as much calcium as a glass of milk. (However, most yogurt and hard cheeses lack vitamin D.) Orange juice and soy beverages fortified with calcium and vitamin D are other worthy bone-building beverages.

Children who do not get enough dairy or alternatives may need supplemental calcium and vitamin D. See your pediatrician or a registered dietitian if you're concerned.

Kids in the Kitchen

How do you get kids to buy into good nutrition? Getting children involved in food choice and preparation is one of the best strategies for helping them eat right, says Economos, herself a mother of two.

Giving kids a say in what they eat encourages the autonomy they crave.

Allow your child some veto power in the supermarket, but make sure they choose among healthy foods. For example, let your child choose between bananas and kiwis, or oatmeal and other whole-grain cereals. At home, encourage your children to prepare healthy brown-bag lunches and easy snacks.

Gather as often as possible for family meals, particularly when your child has been involved in making them. Research shows dining together without distractions -- including the TV -- translates into a better diet and lower chance of overeating, says Economos. Plus, it gives you and your child a chance to talk.

Bet on Breakfast

Mornings can be chaotic, leaving breakfast -- and better nutrition -- in the lurch. Nicklas' research bears that out. Kids who eat breakfast take in more of the nutrients they need, she says. Breakfast skippers typically do not make up for the missed opportunity the morning meal provides.

What you eat for breakfast matters. Cereal (particularly whole-grain types) with milk and fruit make a quick meal that offers an array of nutrients, including carbohydrate, fiber, calcium, iron, folic acid, and zinc.

Cereal can be good for the waistline and the heart, too.  A 2009 Journal of the American Dietetic Association study that followed 660 boys and girls ages 8 to 10 for an average of seven and a half years found a link between eating cereal and a healthier body weight and lower levels of total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol (“bad” cholesterol) and triglycerides (fat in the blood.)

Other Than Cereal

There's no need to limit breakfast foods to traditional choices such as ready-to-eat cereal, however. The following healthy, kid-friendly breakfasts will beckon kids to the table (many are portable feasts to eat on the way to school or during morning snack time):

  • Half a whole-grain bagel spread with almond, peanut, soy, or sunflower seed butter and topped with raisins; milk
  • 1 small slice of leftover cheese pizza; 100% orange juice
  • 8 ounces low-fat fruited yogurt; whole-grain toast; 100% juice
  • Fruit and yogurt smoothie; whole-grain toast
  • Scrambled egg stuffed into half a whole-grain pita pocket and topped with shredded cheddar cheese and salsa or ketchup; 100% juice
  • Waffle sandwich: two whole-grain, toasted waffles spread with almond, peanut, soy, or sunflower seed butter; milk

Snack Attack!

School-age children are notorious noshers. Not to worry, as long as between-meal snacking is nutritious. The best snacks offer significant nutrients for the calories they provide.

Hungry kids will eat what you have on hand, so stock the kitchen with the fixings for healthy snacks like these, many of which are great to take on the go:

  • Trail mix made from low-sugar cereal, dried fruit, chopped nuts, and mini chocolate chips
  • Sandwiches prepared with whole-grain bread
  • Hummus or peanut butter and whole-grain crackers
  • Fruit and yogurt for dipping
  • Bowl of whole-grain cereal and low-fat milk
  • Vegetables and low-fat dip
  • Reduced-fat mozzarella cheese sticks and low-fat crackers
  • Low-fat microwave popcorn and 100% juice
  • Roasted soybeans
  • Low-fat cottage cheese and whole-grain crackers
  • Nuts
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