Newswise — According to the Centers for Disease Control, the prevalence of obesity among children aged 6 to 11 years increased from 6.5% in 1980 to 19.6% in 2008. This astronomical rise has led many advocates to focus their energies on improving nutritional conditions in schools, including reforming cafeteria lunches and eliminating junk food in vending machines. While the debate is being staged at the national level, with Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative focusing a spotlight on the issue, there are steps that parents can take to maintain or improve their child’s diet and nutrition while at school.

“It’s great that there are efforts at revising the standards required by schools at the national level, but parents shouldn’t underestimate the influence they can have on their child’s eating habits, even while they’re at school,” said Keith-Thomas Ayoob, Ed.D., R.D., associate clinical professor of pediatrics and director of the nutrition clinic at the Children’s Evaluation and Rehabilitation Center at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University.

A registered dietitian who advises children and their families, Dr. Ayoob offers seven practical tips that can help parents encourage their kids to eat well during and after school. Dr. Ayoob is available for interviews upon request.

1. Review School Lunch Menus“Step one is to find out what your child’s school is offering for lunch. Some schools make their menus available ahead of time to students and their parents. Some even post their menus online. Encourage your school to sign up to one of these online portals. Some are free for schools to join and provide nutritional information on meals.”

2. Send Lunch Replacements or Supplements“Even if you can’t find out in advance what is being served for lunch, provide healthy foods you know your kids will eat so they can have something satisfying, even when the school lunch is disappointing. Durable foods that will hold up well in a backpack include apples, string cheese or trail mix.”

3. Find Out When Your Child Eats Lunch“Given the overcrowding in some schools, some children eat ‘lunch’ as early as 10:30 in the morning. Find out when your child is eating and plan accordingly. If they eat early in the day, be sure to provide healthy snacks for the afternoon so they don’t use the vending machines or pick up junk food to eat on their way home from school.”

4. Involve Your Kids in Making Lunch“Pick one day a week that you prepare lunch at home for your kids to take to school – and involve your children in the preparation. Studies show that kids are more likely to eat the foods they help to prepare. It also helps to create a sense of responsibility and develop a positive working relationship with food – something they should start developing early to create good eating habits in the future. For younger kids, be sure to make the packaging fun, too – let them pick out a lunch box they like, or put their fruit in colorful containers.”

5. Provide a Good Breakfast“Everyone knows that eating a good breakfast is important, but it bears repeating. Make sure kids start the day with a quality meal. While standard breakfast fare – whole grain cereals, milk and fruit – provide a good start, try to include some extra protein as well – a hard-boiled egg, yogurt or cheese. Carbohydrates are a great way to jump-start your kid’s day, but protein helps sustain their energy level well into the afternoon.”

6. Restrict Their Funds“This may not occur to many parents, but kids with money to burn in their pockets often spend it on junk food. Restricting the amount of cash they take to school allows you to limit the amount of “walking around” money they’ll spend on junk food during or after school.”

7. Set a Good Example at Home – But Pick Your Battles “The best way to encourage your kids to establish good eating habits is to "walk the talk". It’s important to offer rounded meals and keep healthy snacks in the house – and to eat them yourself.”

“That being said, kids are going to want foods that you don’t think are best for them and making some compromises is perfectly acceptable. For little kids, if they eat chicken nuggets instead of a baked, skinless chicken breast, balance it by having fresh fruit and milk with the meal. If your teenage daughter will drink low-fat chocolate milk, acknowledge that it’s a way for her to get the calcium, protein and vitamins she needs – benefits she won’t get from drinking a soda or sports drink.”

Dr. Ayoob points out that many of these tips revolve around a theme: communicating with your child about food. It’s not about controlling your child’s diet so much as helping to foster a healthy relationship with food.

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