Dr. David Jenkins (l) and Alyson Martinez, a registered dietician
A healthy diet packed with nutrients can help with children’s performance in school, research shows.
St. Michael’s experts Alyson Martinez, a registered dietician, and Dr. David Jenkins, head of Clinical Nutrition, share five tips on preparing nutritious meals that’ll keep kids properly fueled throughout the day.
Pack nutrient-rich foods
Make sure to pack foods rich in nutrients associated with cognitive development, such as:
- Iron and zinc: minerals found in animal protein and, to a lesser degree, plant protein
- B vitamins: found in grains, especially whole grains
- Vitamin D: found in cow’s milk and dairy products
- Iodine: a mineral found in fruits and vegetables
- Omega-3: a fatty acid found in fish like salmon and Omega 3-fortifed eggs
- Omega-6: a fatty acid found in grains
“Eating a variety of foods can help children with overall growth, brain development and even long-term growth into adulthood,” said Martinez.
Aim for a well-rounded breakfast
“Send kids to school with a full stomach by preparing breakfasts containing nutrients, carbohydrates, fat and protein,” said Martinez.“For example, this could be oatmeal with a glass of milk or yogurt, a piece of fruit and a hard-boiled egg.”
Oatmeal is a low-glycemic index carbohydrate – meaning it doesn’t cause blood sugar levels to spike – and provides a host of micronutrients that can help kids properly start their day.
“For children without nut allergies, oatmeal can be paired with either crushed nuts or slivered almonds, along with fresh fruit like berries, peaches or pears,” said Dr. David Jenkins, who is also head of the Risk Factor Modification Centre of St. Michael’s Hospital.
Dr. Jenkins suggested B12-fortifed soy milk for parents seeking an alternative to cow’s milk.
Focus on vegetables, lentils and beans for lunch
“Fruits and vegetables should comprise half of the child’s lunch,” said Martinez.
Soups, sandwiches, whole-grain pasta or rice and bean salads can also provide a healthy dose of nutrients for children mid-day, said Dr. Jenkins. Lentils and beans are slow-release carbohydrates packed with minerals and micronutrients.
Here are a few quick and healthy lunchbox ideas:
- Slow cooker meals: meals like chili can be made with turkey and served with brown rice and cheese on the side
- Sandwiches: make a healthy sandwich by using leftover chicken or meat from the night before, raw sliced vegetables and hummus
- Soups: make healthy soups in just 20 minutes by boiling down broth with leftover vegetables, rice and meat
- Dips: Serve raw vegetables with hummus or guacamole
- Make lunch fun: Use cookie cutters for sandwiches and pre-slice vegetables to make meals more visually appealing
Structure your meals
“For some families, what works is a lot of structure,” said Martinez. “For example, Monday can be chicken night and Tuesday can be vegetarian night.”
Martinez suggested finding new recipes that fit with the theme of the night, and incorporating new ingredients and vegetables each week.
Involve your kids in meal-planning
“Go grocery shopping or head to a farmer’s market with your children and pick out a fruit or vegetable they haven’t tried before,” said Martinez. “At home, parents can meal-plan and browse through recipes as a family, so that children have the opportunity to be more involved in what they eat.”
Dr. Jenkins and Martinez both stress the importance of involving children in meal-planning and exposing them to different types of foods when they’re young.
“As children grow up, they often go back to foods they’re familiar with, and end up preparing dishes for themselves that look very much like the dishes and snacks their parents gave them,” said Dr. Jenkins.
About St. Michael’s Hospital
St. Michael’s Hospital provides compassionate care to all who enter its doors. The hospital also provides outstanding medical education to future health care professionals in 27 academic disciplines. Critical care and trauma, heart disease, neurosurgery, diabetes, cancer care, care of the homeless and global health are among the hospital’s recognized areas of expertise. Through the Keenan Research Centre and the Li Ka Shing International Healthcare Education Centre, which make up the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute, research and education at St. Michael’s Hospital are recognized and make an impact around the world. Founded in 1892, the hospital is fully affiliated with the University of Toronto.