Written by Erika Long
Kids going back to school after a break can be chaotic. It is easy to get overwhelmed when looking to create portable, nutritious meals that won’t spoil, and that kids will actually eat. Here are some practical tips and meal ideas to help with meal planning.
Tips for Optimal Nutrition
School days are so busy for kids that they barely have enough time to manage their studies and after-school activities effectively, let alone finding a chance to sit down and have relaxed meals. With the increasing competitiveness in society leading to pressure to pack more into a single day, kids need easy nutrition and parents need easy prep. So how do we ensure that our kids get enough nutrition to get through the day while avoiding elaborate prep work?
1. Several smaller meals
Children tend to be more active as opposed to adults who live more sedentary lives, hence, they need to consume nutrient-dense, but smaller meals throughout the day. On top of that, some are fussy eaters and tying them to a large meal could cause them to be even more averse to food, leading to poor digestion and malabsorption of nutrients.
Instead, try to think of mini-meals and pass them off as snacks. For kids going back to school, expect to feed them five to six smaller meals throughout the day as children need a steady supply of nutrients to be able to grow and develop strong.
2. Balance out each meal
With kids, parents always need to plan ahead. Besides supporting their body and brain development, research also suggests that a well-rounded diet is directly linked to a child's happiness quotient. Their bright future starts with the balance of nutrition they get during their school years. Vitamins and minerals are key to their development, and with each meal we support their growth.
Try to pack either a vegetable or a fruit with every meal, including snacks, in addition to some whole grains and/or proteins. The more colorful your kid's plate (or box) is the better. It is not only healthy but looks enticing and is more likely to actually be eaten.
3. Diversity is key
Food intolerance is a real concern. Research has shown that children who had highly diverse food options in their youth have a lower risk of developing food intolerance later in life than those who did not. Diversity in food is also tied to balanced and nutrient-rich eating habits.
For example, bananas might be one of the most nutrient-dense fruits on the planet, but when kids eat them every single day, neglecting other fruits, there can be missing important nutrients. Remember, no food has it all, no matter how nutrient-dense they are.
Aim to rotate as many varieties of vegetables and fruits you can throughout the week. Try unfamiliar items, too. There might be something new on the shelf of your local supermarket that you never had as a child. Bring it home, learn how to cook it, and let the kids try it. The sooner you offer them diverse foods, the sooner they will learn to adapt to different and unfamiliar circumstances.
4. Experiment with ideas
It can be difficult to fit in all the required nutrients into 5 or 6 meals a day for your kids, especially when your kids go back to school and time is more crunched. Start small. Try recipes that require less than 5 ingredients. Don’t pressure yourself into making restaurant-level meals.
As long as they are nutritious and balanced, you are winning. With children's meals, especially in their growing years, ingredients are key. Stock up on whole foods, raw fruits and vegetables, and healthy fats like avocadoes and nuts. Minimize processed and refined foods as they are laced with preservatives.
During the rush of the morning, don’t attempt to make anything from scratch. Instead prep the night before or possibly over the weekend and make as much as you can ahead of time. Do not stick to one recipe per food category. Play with mixing and matching cuisines. The more diversity you add to the menu, the more attention kids will pay to their meals.
5. Family dinner time
Once kids are back in school, breakfast may be on-the-go, snacks and lunch are probably at school so the only meal that everyone is likely to have together is dinner thus ensure dinnertime is family time by having simple but delicious meals that everyone loves. Avoid making involved dishes and instead stick to one-pot recipes or pull out a meal that you froze from the batch cooking over the weekend.
Dinner is about sharing your day over a yummy and easy meal. Encourage your kids to engage in family conversations while having dinner. Research shows that when families eat at least one meal together per day, it promotes mental and emotional development in children, which in turn translates into better digestion and higher nutrition absorption.
Some Meal Ideas
Fortunately, there are simple and healthy meal ideas that are tried and tested to make life easier and kids happy. Let’s look at some ideas per meal.
The most important meal of the day can be quick and healthy. Of course, there are sandwiches that you could prepare the night before, like good ole PB&J but there are plenty of other options:
Banana almond butter: Slice a banana in half. Spread almond butter (or any other butter that your kids prefer) on each slice. Top up with a generous sprinkle of chopped cashews, pistachios, almonds, raisins, chia seeds, or hemp seeds and a drizzle of honey. Ready in less than 5 minutes.
- Smoothies: A healthy smoothie for breakfast would comprise of some greens such as kale and spinach, seasonal fruits such as pineapples, apples, oranges, and berries, and topped with yogurt, honey, and water. Quick, delicious, and portable.
- Oatmeal bowl: Oatmeal is a classic favorite, but it does not have to be boring. Top the oatmeal with fresh berries, chopped nuts and some maple syrup. Always a crowd-pleaser.
- Egg Tortillas: Want to sneak in some protein into the breakfast before your kid heads out the door? Nothing better than eggs! Place beaten eggs in the microwave (done in a minute or less). Insert cooked eggs into tortilla, add some cheese, roll it up and warm for another for 10-15 seconds until the cheese melts.
- Granola bars with fruits: Either store-bought or homemade, granola bars are full of nutrition and pair nicely with an apple or some grapes. If your granola bars are store-bought, make sure you buy ones that are low in sugar and preservatives.
The snack breaks at school is a great chance to sneak in some more fruits and vegetables into your child's diet. Snacking, as per a recent study, encourages kids to eat more. Hence, snacks must be healthy, and a little creativity is needed to keep them exciting.
Apple sandwich: Slice an apple in half and “fill” with a nut butter, dried fruit and maybe some granola.
- Stuffed celery: Fill celery pieces with cream cheese, bacon, and herb-based seasoning or the classic peanut butter topped with raisins.
- Plantain chips: Again, can be homemade or store-bought, just double-check to make sure they used healthy oils and little preservatives. Serve with guacamole or alone.
- Trail Mix: One of the easiest snacks to prepare. Throw in nuts, dried fruit and some M&Ms for a quick, energy snack.
Research shows that a healthy lunch is directly linked to a child's academic achievements. Your kid's lunch box is where you get ample opportunities to combine diversity with simplicity. If you send the same boring sandwich to school with your kids, chances are it will come back home uneaten.
Here are some other options that could become instant favorites:
- Pita bread and hummus: Add a vegetable (liked sliced cucumbers) and a piece of fruit (maybe an orange) and you have a complete meal.
- Pasta salad: Easy to prepare days in advance, pack with some cheese and berries and you’re set.
- Bagels: Don’t relegate bagels with cream cheese or nut butter to breakfast only. Include some baby carrots and grapes. Your kids will love it.
After School Snacks
Some morning snacks, as well as breakfast recipes, could double-up as after-school snacks, but the options are unlimited. Here are quick bites for hungry kids:
- Mini pizza: Take a pita pocket, top with pizza sauce and mozzarella, (maybe some pepperoni too) and place it in the oven or microwave until the cheese melts. Healthy, delicious, and ready in 10 minutes!
- Savory muffins: Best made ahead of time and then warmed before consuming, take a basic cornmeal muffin recipe and add cheese, diced vegetables, and maybe some ham, sausage or turkey bacon.
- No-bake brownies: Finally, brownies! Try this healthier version: food process coconut flakes with cocoa powder, add almonds and pistachios, roll into small balls, and serve. Simple and delicious.
While keeping everyone's tastes in mind, aim for nutritious and simple. If they have had solid nutrition throughout the day, dinner.
One-pot spaghetti: Cook raw spaghetti with sauce in an instant pot. Top with cheese before serving.
- Grilled cheese: Always easy and simple. For a new take on an old classic, take Italian bread, spread with pesto sauce and layer mozzarella cheese and slices of tomato. Grill as usual. Serve alongside a fresh garden salad for a complete meal.
- Baked chicken nuggets: Kids love a nugget. Instead of the fast food or frozen food variety in which the quality is questionable at best, opt for a simple homemade version. Just take some chicken breasts, breadcrumbs, parmesan cheese, herbs, and a little butter and you have a healthy version of a classic favorite.
Strategy for Success
The best strategy for back to school meal prep is: Plan, Shop, Cook, Eat, Repeat. Keep things simple by opting for meals and snacks with fewer quality ingredients and leave more elaborate or time-intensive meals for weekends or breaks. By mixing creative presentation with diverse nutrient selections, maintaining a healthy diet will become second-nature for your kids and you’ll be able to rest assured that you are supporting their optimal growth and development both physically and mentally.
Erika Long loves corgis, curry and comedy. Always searching for the next great
snuggle, flavor or laugh, she inspires people to live their best life now. When not writing, Erika can be found at her local brewery dominating Harry Potter trivia night.