Here are some tips for low-stress meal preparation as your child heads to school.
In the tug-of-war between getting kids to school on time or preparing healthy meals for breakfast and lunch, getting to school on time often wins priority.
It does not have to be that way, with a little preparation.
Erin Gennocro, a nurse practitioner with Weiss Pediatric Care in Sarasota, said the best thing parents can do is to prepare food in advance.
Many healthy breakfast foods can be prepared the previous night. It is easy to dip a banana in yogurt and coat it with a low-sugar cereal like Cheerios before putting it in the freezer.
This provides a child with fruit, dairy and grains while taking no time at all in the morning. The protein in the yogurt will make sure the child stays full until lunch.
Other items, like a healthy take on banana pancakes, can be prepared on a Sunday and served throughout the week. Mash bananas together with a few eggs and cook them like pancakes, serving them with apple sauce instead of syrup to cut down on sugar.
Lunches can be handled in a similar fashion, Gennocro said.
If parents prepare a base meal for the week in advance, like chicken salad, they can throw in different sides each day to add variety, like carrots and celery sticks with hummus, or a container of yogurt.
Changing sides each day ensures kids are getting different minerals and antioxidants. The most important thing, Gennocro said, is that kids are getting some sort of vegetable with their lunch since breakfasts usually lack one.
No matter what parents serve, Gennocro urges them to avoid giving kids food with lots of sugar since they should be having no more than 6 teaspoons of sugar per day, outside of things like natural sugar in fruit. Gennocro children should not skip breakfast, even if they declare they are not hungry.
"At least half of families do not routinely eat breakfast," Gennocro said. "Our brains need food to function. Skipping breakfast can affect memory, concentration and behavior. It can contribute to a lack of energy. Plus, whenever kids do decide to eat after skipping breakfast, they tend to eat unhealthier than they would otherwise."
Making sure kids drink water and stay hydrated throughout the day is also vital, Gennocro said.
Sometimes, offering many smaller items of food can be faster and easier than preparing a typical meal — while remaining just as delicious and healthy.
Lakewood Ranch's Amy Hammon, whose children attend Pinnacle Academy, said she likes to prepare a "charcuterie board" for them, which they enjoy and Hammon can make whenever she has free time.
"I pre-cut fruit and spray it with lemon juice to preserve it," Hammon said. "I then cut all the meats and cheeses for the week. That way, it's all ready to go."
Hammon said her "boards" — which are really bento boxes — typically consist of a mix of apples with Nutella, salami, turkey, grapes, berries, crackers, mini Mozzarella/tomato stacks and cucumbers with ranch dressing for dipping purposes. Hammon will also include pretzels or cookies as an after-lunch treat. Hammon said she lets her children pick a few things to fill the box with each day, letting them feel like they are making their own choices and mixing things up.
Hammon said she does similar things for breakfast, pre-cooking boiled eggs and offering them alongside mini-bagels with cream cheese, berries and apple slices, among other things.
Being healthy is about more than just the foods kids eat. Gennocro said the foundation of a good morning routine actually begins the night before with the amount and quality of sleep they get.
"If kids wake up tired, they will be cranky and less open to certain foods," Gennocro said. "Mornings are already enough of a challenge without that, especially coming off of summer break where a lot of kids were likely staying up later and sleeping in later. Establishing a consistent sleep routine can help."
Gennocro said parents could take their children grocery shopping to make them part of the decision-making team and encourage them to eat healthy foods they otherwise would not.
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