The federal Child Nutrition Act, which oversees the National School Lunch Program, is reviewed by Congress every five years. It’s up for renewal this fall, and lobbyists are working hard to make changes to it.
According to the Washington Post, increasing lobbyist demands include curtailing whole-grain and sodium requirements, and the rule that children must take fruits and vegetables with their meals.
Dr. Jennifer Jackson is a registered dietician and nutritionist who works with WIC — Women, Infants and Children program, which provides federal grants to states for supplemental foods — and is CEO of Keystone Nutrition. Regardless of the politics involved, she says there’s much parents can do to ensure their school-age children get proper nutrition.
“A lot of people gave Michelle Obama a hard time,” said Jackson, citing the first lady’s focus on healthy eating. “But ask yourself, what percentage of children are eating this at home? The piece missing is education of parents and children. Once you educate them, they’re likely to make better choices. For instance, there’s no value in iceberg lettuce. It’s better to choose darker, leafier romaine. And start right now with healthy snacks, peanut butter and yogurt.”
Jackson says food habits are ingrained early on as are its addictions, especially when food is used as a reward or punishment instead of sustenance. She says a lot of young children reject certain foods because of appearance and texture but will grow out of it eventually.
“They can get protein from other sources,” she said. “Junk food is quick and easy, but it’s full of sugar.”
However, Jackson keeps her parental advice realistic.
“Fresh fruits and vegetables go bad quickly, and it can be expensive to eat healthy, but you can buy frozen, or raisins, nuts and granola,” she said. “Some people like to crunch.”
Children shy away from foods colored green, orange and yellow. Jackson says there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with eating pasta every day, and children like cheese in string form or cubes.
“Sprinkle cheese on the spaghetti,” she suggested.
One option is to make children part of the decision, but maturity matters. Jackson advocates a mixture of parental authority and flexibility, and has concerns about parents packing school lunches.
“No junk food, chips or candy,” she said, noting that even educated parents can make poor choices. “There’s no value in soda, and people don’t start out thinking they’ll be addicted.”
As for breakfast, it’s protein and takes effort.
“Wake up five minutes early and eat it on your drive,” she said. “You have to plan for it, but it’s cheaper than the drive-through.”
Jackson advises parents to have a nutrition plan but warns against comparisons with other children or treating them like miniadults.
“Eat every two to three hours and have protein with each meal. Smaller portions more often,” she said. “When they get home, that snack has to be right there, waiting. It has to be accessible. They won’t eat the honeybuns if they’re not in the house.
“It’s what you eat and how much.”