And Their A+ Alternatives!
Blank notebooks and sharpened pencils? Check. Cool backpack? Check. Closetful of new clothes? Check. At the start of every school year, parents the world over try to arm their kids with everything they need to start the year off right — and pass with flying colors. But the F on your kid’s report card may be in a surprising subject — food. “The foods we feed our children not only give them energy but also ingrain in them an understanding of health and nutrition,” says Michael Roizen, MD, chief wellness officer and chair of the Wellness Institute of the Cleveland Clinic. If you want your kids to truly succeed in school, part of your back-to-school effort should involve a critical look at school day meals. Get ready for your first lesson: We’re serving up five foods to flunk this school year, with healthier, A+ alternatives.
Croissant Breakfast Sandwiches
F is for fattening: With bread, meat and cheese, this school breakfast favorite looks like a complete meal — but in terms of nutrition, it’s more like a complete disaster. Prepackaged ham or sausage plus cheese on a croissant allows schools without kitchens to serve students a hot breakfast using minimal equipment, says Dr. Roizen. Unfortunately, the convenience comes at a health cost, with as much as 900 calories and around 65 grams of saturated fat per croissant.
A+ alternative: In just three minutes, you can whip up this healthy breakfast sandwich for your kids: Split and toast a whole-grain English muffin. Spray a ramekin or Pyrex custard cup with nonstick spray and fill with one cracked egg. Scramble and microwave for 30 to 45 seconds. Top toasted muffin half with the cooked egg and the other muffin half to make a sandwich.
Extra Credit: Add sliced tomato, baby spinach or another veggie.
F is for fructose: Sure, they sound wholesome, but cereal bars are often candy bars in disguise. Loaded with refined grains and sweeteners like high-fructose corn syrup, these bars will give your kids a quick rush of energy that ends with a crash midmorning. “The American Heart Association recently issued guidelines regarding sugar for the first time,” says Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, LD, wellness manager at the Cleveland Clinic. “Most of our diets contain way too much, and children are no exception.”
A+ alternative: Look for bars made with whole ingredients, including whole grains and dried fruit and nuts.
Extra credit: Have your child wash down her nutritious bar with a cup of low-fat milk. That way, she gets a healthy dose of calcium, which is often lacking when kids opt out of breakfast cereals (the good-for-them kind, that is).
F is for seriously flawed: While you may have warm memories of crustless bologna sandwiches on white bread, your children are better off without meats that have been cured, smoked or salted. “Processed meats like bologna and salami are some of the worst things you can feed a person,” says Dr. Roizen. “The preservatives they’re made with stay with kids for a lifetime and are proven to increase risks of both heart disease and cancer,” he says. In fact, a review of 20 studies in the journal Circulation found that eating processed meats is associated with higher risks of heart disease and diabetes. (Uncured meat did not have the same correlation.)
A+ alternative: Trade luncheon meats for unprocessed ones like skinless turkey breast.
Extra credit: Use 100% whole grain bread and top with crunch veggies like spinach, tomato and cucumber.
F is for saturated fat: One of the most popular choices in school cafeterias, chicken nuggets are high in cholesterol-raising saturated fat and are loaded with heart-unhealthy sodium. And to make matters worse, some students will eat them every day! “Chicken nuggets are huge in the schools,” says Kirkpatrick. “Parents have to take it upon themselves to send something better.”
A+ alternative: All chicken nuggets are not created equal. Find a brand that uses lean chicken and whole grains; oven bake the night before, chill and send it to school with an ice pack.
Jellied Fruit Cups
F is for far from fresh: Could there be a better dessert choice for your kids than fruit? Well, yes, if the fruit you give them is loaded with added sugar and chemicals. Popular gelatin fruit cups may be portable and kid-friendly — but so is plain old fruit. While the fruit itself in this packaged dessert is packed with vitamins, minerals and fiber, the gelatin added is packed with sugar and artificial coloring.
A+ alternative: Go “old school” with fruit in the lunchbox, but make it fun — freeze grapes or mango chunks the night before and send to school with an ice pack, or pack fruit skewers (spear melon chunks, strawberries and banana slices on a shish kebab stick). Another option: slice an apple and spritz with lemon juice. The lemon juice will keep the apple from turning brown in your child's lunch.
Extra credit: Send your Disney-loving daughter to school with fruit in a princess-themed cup, says Kirkpatrick. When kids eat food from a package with a cartoon character, 50 percent say it tastes better than when it’s wrapped plainly, according to a recent study from Yale University.
Teacher's Comment: Needs Improvement
While these meals and snacks don’t deserve a failing grade, we gave them a C, with some tips on how to make them worthy of an A:
1. Pretzels: As innocent as they seem, the mixture of sodium and refined carbohydrates offer no redeeming nutritional value. Look for whole-grain varieties and pair with low-fat cheese for a healthy snack.
2. Fruit drinks: Products labeled “cocktail,” “juice” or “drink” may be packed with sugar and other additives. Instead, look for products labeled “100% juice.” And remember that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that kids 7 and older drink no more than eight to 12 ounces per day, kids ages 1 to 6, no more than four to six ounces.
Teacher's Comment: Needs Improvement
3. Mac and cheese: Just because you grew up on white pasta and fluorescent orange “cheese” doesn’t mean your kids should. Look for a product that uses whole-grain macaroni and actual cheese like Annie’s Homegrown Organic Whole Wheat Shells and Cheddar.
4. Reduced-fat peanut butter: Believe it or not, with the reduced-fat version your kids get less healthy fats, but they do get sugars and hydrogenated oils. Give your kids normal servings of regular peanut butter instead (peanuts and salt should be the only ingredients). The same goes for jelly — look for 100 percent fruit.
5. Kids’ yogurt: Some of the products aimed squarely at children are loaded with ingredients you’d never expect to find in a so-called health food, such as high-fructose corn syrup and red #40. Look for kid-friendly yogurts with natural ingredients, like Chobani Champions or products by Stonyfield Farms.
Healthy, Happy Kids
For more healthy kids advice, check out these useful resources: