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To promote healthy eating, engage kids in food selection and preparation

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- With the new school year looming, many parents are scrambling to meet the demands of outfitting their children — with clothes, shoes, notebooks, backpacks — for that age-old transition known as “Back to School.”  

As kids gear up to re-enter the classroom, what can parents do to make sure their lunches and after-school snacks keep them alert and focused?     

If your family has made a commitment to a healthier lifestyle, you’re probably on the lookout for appetizing and nutritious foods that your kids will actually eat and, you hope, enjoy.

A key to ensuring that foods you pack in their lunchboxes end up in your kids, and not in the garbage can, is to engage them in the process of choosing and fixing the foods, said Keith Kantor of Atlanta, a nutritionist and author of “The Green Box League of Nutritious Justice.”

Kantor emphasizes making it fun. In his book, he tries “to really explain (good nutrition) and teach our children, rather than tell them something.”

Better beverages

In the quest to promote better nutrition, you should consider revamping what your children drink as well as what they eat.

Too often, “we overlook kids’ beverages; we concentrate on foods,” he said.

“What do kids drink? A lot of times it’s Juicy Juice that is chocked full of calories, dyes and artificial sweeteners. (Sweeteners) eventually have the same effect as sugar.”

Kantor recommends that you start by asking kids to squeeze an orange, for example, into a pitcher of water.

“Squeeze it and throw it all in the pitcher,” he said. “You could also use a lime, lemon or strawberries.”   

Kids will enjoy the messiness of liquid, pulp and seeds running through their fingers, he said. But more important, “when they get engaged, they become part of it; they take ownership of it.”

Leave the pitcher in the fridge overnight. The next day, pour the contents into a thermos for their lunchbox.  

By substituting this flavor-infused water, “you’ve knocked out 600 to 1000 calories.” he said.   

He also suggests taking kids with you to the supermarket to increase their understanding of healthy food.  

“Let them pick it out,” he said.

Children should be encouraged to help out with food preparation in the kitchen, depending on their age, he said.

“Even young kids can fetch, stir and measure things. They can set the oven temperature, with supervision. If they have done three or four things, they’ve ‘made’ dinner.”    

Four ‘must-haves’

If you’d like to cut down on the sugar- and salt-laden foods that are commonly part of the lunch scene — prompted more by habit than thought — keep four components in mind, Kantor said.

“Each lunch should include a protein, a fruit, a vegetable and a healthy fat.”

Include items such as apple and cucumber slices, carrots and celery, he said, and don’t forget dips made from hummus or guacamole.

“Kids love to dip.”

Choose Greek yogurts, gluten-free breads, all-natural spreads and colorful foods, he said. “With lots of colors, we know we have lots of different fruits and vegetables there.

“The more colorful the plate, the more the child tends to like it,” he said. “Too much brown and you’ve probably got too much protein.”

In addition to being healthy and nutritious, “none of this is expensive,” he said. “It’s fun and kids can make (lunches) themselves.”

If you really get them involved with nutritious foods, they will start bugging you about food selection and preparation, he said. “That’s a great position to be in.”    

Shrinking sugar, salt intake  

Children can be weaned off sugar and salt, Kantor said, but “it’s best to not let them get addicted in the first place.”

“Big advertisers have done that” to children in this country, he said.

Parents should not set out to stop kids totally from eating sweets and salts, but to substitute fruits, which provide natural sugars.

In and of itself, salt is not bad, he said. “It’s the ratio between sodium and potassium that’s bad.”

But salt is prevalent, especially in junk food, he said. “Everything contains salt — even something like ketchup. There’s no need to give (kids) salt.

“Get them used to not using salt” and to flavoring food with more natural alternatives.

“You have to ‘sell’ them (on nutritious choices),” he said, “in order to counteract the marketing they see on TV.”

As a leading nutritionist, he’s an advocate for a healthier lifestyle for kids in general.

“Set limits on the time your children spend watching TV and playing video games,” he said. “You may have to get outside and exercise with them if they’re not part of a group.”

Although studies suggest that some gains have been made in the fight against obesity, it remains a serious problem in the U.S., Kantor said.

“If you are obese, your chances of getting Type 2 diabetes is something like 300 percent. Your chances of developing cancer, heart disease and strokes are also high.  

“According to the CDC, 75 percent of all chronic diseases are nutrition related. If we could get that figure down by even a few percent, it would help the country physically and financially.”

Health experts agree that “the easiest, most efficient and cost-effective way to treat a disease is to prevent it in the first place,” Kantor said.

Healthy, tempting treats

If you’re packing your kid’s lunchbox, here are some tips for healthy and easy alternatives to high-sugar, high-fat, high-carbohydrate and high-calorie foods from Gabi Rose, a nationally known obesity and health expert and mother of four young children.

Fruits and veggies

Stock up your child’s lunchbox with fresh fruit and vegetables. Aim for two pieces of fruit a day and alternate the fruit so your child doesn’t get bored. Bananas, apples and oranges are guaranteed winners, but how about trying fruits such as grapes, strawberries, peaches and pears, too? 

Chop up some raw carrot sticks and cucumber, and pop in some cherry tomatoes and strips of bright yellow, green and red bell peppers. For dipping, add hummus in a separate container.    

Healthy snacks

Try healthy treats such as dried fruit, mixed nuts, rice cakes, unsalted pretzels and unsalted popcorn. Also consider muesli bars; search for those that contain more than four grams of fiber.      

Dairy goodness

Tuck in a tub of reduced-fat yogurt, switching up various flavors each day. Or drop in some low-fat cheese on the days you’re not including yogurt.  

Pocket full of meatballs

This tasty lunchbox idea combines a fresh pita pocket with scrumptious marinated meatballs.

Mini tuna fishwiches

Cut sandwiches into little fish shapes to make a snack that’s not only cute but delicious too. Use your choice of whole wheat or rye bread, along with avocados, mayonnaise, celery and tuna.