South Florida nutritionists share healthy back-to-school tips for children

APPLE A DAY: An Apple for the teacher is a nice gesture and homage to education. But children are well-advised to save the nutrient-rich fruit for their own lunch treat. And don't forget breakfast, nutritionists urge.
APPLE A DAY: An Apple for the teacher is a nice gesture and homage to education. But children are well-advised to save the nutrient-rich fruit for their own lunch treat. And don't forget breakfast, nutritionists urge.
HOWARD COHEN / Miami Herald Staff

A new school year once meant a shiny, red apple for the teacher.

Parents might want to rethink the once popular Depression-era tradition and convince their kids to eat the fiber- and nutrient-rich fruit themselves.

As the school year begins, health experts Natalie Castro, chief wellness dietician for Baptist Health South Florida; Myerly Kertis, a pediatric registered dietician for Holtz Children’s Hospital at Jackson Memorial; and Sheah Rarback, director of nutrition for the Mailman Center for Child Development at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine (also a Miami Herald columnist) share the following nutritional tips.


Breakfast is a must — for children and parents.

“The name tells you you are ‘breaking a fast.’ Everything is on low. You really need that breakfast to start your metabolism for the day,” Rarback said. “The body is always using nutrients even though you are sleeping. Kids haven’t eaten for 12 hours so they have to break that fast.”

For families that qualify, schools offer free or reduced-price breakfasts. But parents need to be diligent.

“Kids are on their own to pick and choose what they want so if you want to make sure your child is starting the day right, talk to them about what they are eating,” Rarback said.

Have a mix of nutrients, with some protein, she says. “That could be an egg. Eggs have an important ingredient, choline, a B vitamin, which is important for brain function.” And don’t fall for the trendy myth that egg whites are the only parts you should consume. That’s nonsense, Rarback says.

“People should eat the whole egg. The whole egg does not raise cholesterol, it’s a diet high in saturated fat that can raise cholesterol, not the yolk in an egg. Eat the whole egg!”

Additionally, consider nut butters for breakfast on whole wheat toast — peanut or almond are smart choices to help regulate blood sugars during the day. Rather than jam, which come loaded with sugar, press fresh fruit like strawberries or blueberries into the peanut butter toast. Greek yogurt is also a smart start.

And look for cereals with fewer than 10 grams of sugar and are made with whole-grain flakes.

Cut the fuss

Kids in pre-K and day-care can prove challenging. Many are fussy eaters but there are tricks to getting them to eat.

“For toddlers, make it visually appealing,” Kertis said. Mix colors and fruits and vegetables into fun shapes through cookie cutters.

And don’t get overly obsessed when your pre-schoolers and kindergartners only want chicken nuggets. Look for ways to add healthy veggies into their food.

“Usually they grow out of it, so keep trying new things as they grow and food preferences change,” Kertis said. Chop broccoli and other vegetables into tomato sauce you serve over pasta (opt for whole grain pasta). Add finely chopped broccoli in quesadillas and finely chopped spinach into scrambled eggs. Slip a sliced tomato in the grilled cheese.

“Substitute cauliflower in place of mashed potatoes or make a cauliflower pizza crust. Sneak in fruits in muffins if they like muffins,” Kertis added.

•  Also: peanut butter smears on celery and apples. Roll bananas in yogurt and whole grain cereal and freeze for a grab-and-go treat. Dips like hummus, yogurt or applesauce can be fun for little fingers (and big kids) too.

•  Grow your own veggies and herbs in an edible garden if you’ve a small patch of land in the backyard, and let the kids take ownership of the space.

Pre-teens, teens

“When kids help plan or prepare a healthy meal, they are much more likely to eat it and try new foods,” Castro said. “If you leave it completely open, kids will pick the worst things. Give them some options: ‘This is what we’re going to have, what are some things from this list you’ll choose?’ That way, a child feels involved.”

Shake it up

Bored with the same old sandwich? Castro suggested the following tips:

•  Wraps, which come in a variety of colors and flavors like spinach and tomato.

•  Bread-free sandwiches. Cut apple slices long-ways and make peanut butter sandwiches using the fruit halves. Make lettuce wraps using the big leaves of Bibb or romaine or even cabbage and fold in chopped cheese, chicken or other favorites like hummus.

•  Little salads with protein like cheese, nuts and beans.


“Get them involved in the cooking, have them wash some of the vegetables for you or peeling them for you,” Castro said. “Eating together as a family is one of the biggest things families don’t do as much anymore, especially with back-to-school and homework time, but that time is crucial.”

Follow @HowardCohen on Twitter.

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