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When kids head off to school each day – whether to elementary grades or even to college – parents aren’t there to guide them toward the best choices in the foods they eat.

But the subject is important. Childhood obesity levels remain a major health concern, and on a day-to-day basis, young students need to choose the healthy food items to fuel their energy for learning.

At SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center in St. Louis, pediatric dietitian Rita Chrivia, R.D., says that when kids make their own choices, they tend to go with familiar foods – especially pizza and soda – but moms and dads can use the school year to review good nutrition.

Chrivia says one way in the early grades is to obtain a copy of the school lunch menu and then discuss it at home. Elementary schools usually have copies of the menu available to parents.

“Parents can sit down with their child and talk about what items on the menu might be better choices,” says Chrivia. “Together, the child and parent might decide that some days it might be better to take a meal.”

Using the menu, Chrivia suggests taking a “moderate” approach. Instead of thinking of dessert as “bad,” help the child concentrate on getting the nutrients needed by eating a wide variety of items, including fruits and vegetables.

As kids advance in grade levels, they face even more choices. Many middle and high schools today offer buffet-style dining.

Chrivia says this can be a good time for the family to visit a buffet-style restaurant, where parents can “model” good choices. It’s okay to incorporate some of kids’ favorite foods – even less nutrient-dense ones – but not go overboard.

The buffet line can be a good time to review portion sizes. Chrivia suggests the size of the palm – adult or child – for sizing a serving of a lean meat item, and using the fist for sizing a portion of potatoes or starchy item.

“A lot of us have gotten away from what is a good-sized portion because of restaurant marketing where we’ve come to expect heaping plates,” says Chrivia.

 But because of concerns about maintaining healthy weight and eating in moderation, parents should emphasize both an appropriate portion and a eating a variety of healthy foods, she continues.

Reviewing healthy choices at the buffet line also can help new college students. Chrivia notes that studies find that students on average gain 3 to 10 pounds during their first two years of college – most in the first semester – sometimes setting themselves up for years of too much weight.

Young waistlines are not the only thing at stake. “The foods you choose affect your energy, concentration and memory because your body and brain need the right nutrition to function properly,” she says.

Chrivia says parents should try to introduce kids to a variety of healthy food items long before they are ready to start school. She notes that enjoying the taste of many foods isn’t automatic. Very young children may need to try a particular food multiple times before learning to like it, or deciding with certainty that they don’t.

“I’ve never cared for bananas,” says Chrivia. “But I made sure to offer them to my children.”

With very young children, Chrivia advises offering a bite or small serving of a new food – but not insisting.  “Sometimes you have to present an item ten times before the child is willing to taste it; so having it on the table, having it be prepared in front of them can lead to greater acceptance. Or they may come to a point where they say this really isn’t one of their favorites.”

When kids get home from school, they also need help to make the right snack choices. Chrivia notes that younger kids and those involved in sports in particular need snacks after school for energy, but moms and dads need to limit the quantity of low-nutrient snacks available in the home.

Parents are responsible for “controlling what’s in the supply line,” Chrivia says, encouraging parents to ensure snacks in the home are mostly the healthy kinds – like cut up pieces of fruit, presented in a bowl – not hidden in a drawer.

 She also recommends protein foods, like lean deli meats and lower-fat cheeses. Raw veggies are good too, with or without dip.

Chrivia adds that helping kids to make good food choices is part of good parenting. It also should be fun because food can be a very enjoyable part of being human. As soon as kids are old enough, she suggests involving them in shopping and in menu planning.

“They may be able to help go to the grocery, read labels and help pick out a new food that the family hasn’t tried.  Go to the farmer’s market on the weekends, if possible,” Chrivia says.

It may not be possible every day, but it’s important too to sit down and have a family meal, Chrivia continues. “It’s a good time for parents to demonstrate good eating habits, and have nice relaxed conversations, slipping in a nutritional lesson here and there.”

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