Before and during the time that this marathon of a pandemic became the elephant in the classroom, there was another issue that was making its own impact on the health of our school children. And unfortunately, it’s likely to be one that will outlast even the long-lasting coronavirus. The issue is the nutritional quality of the food our children eat.
According to a study done by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), less than 1 percent of children in the U.S. are consuming a diet that gives them all the nutrition they need. Slightly more than half of our kids are eating foods that constitute what experts say is a low-quality diet. That number rises to 2 in 3 among teenagers.
The problem expresses itself in two distinctly different ways. First, there are well more than 10 million children who are living in a state of hunger. For these kids, school lunch programs have been nothing less than essential. Thankfully, those programs were continued even when schools were closed due to the pandemic.
But the other symptom of malnutrition is the well publicized problem of obesity among the young. Too much of the wrong foods, notably those we label “junk” that are rich in sugar, has more than tripled the number of our children who are considered obese since the 1970s. It’s not surprising, then, that we’ve been experiencing a nearly 5% per year increase in Type 2 Diabetes among our kids in recent years.
Bear in mind that our children are doing all the hard work of developing their minds and bodies during these young years. The extent to which they can grow, learn and achieve is directly affected by the quality of their diet.
Although schools and their menus are an important part of the equation that equals a healthier diet for our kids, there’s ultimately no place like home if you want to make a real difference. But for so many of us, that’s easier said than done.
Getting real about nutritious meals
“There are three basic reasons why our kids aren’t eating well,” said Rochelle Bryant, GracedMed’s Director of Community Cares. “First, it’s hard to be your own nutritionist and carry around the kind of working knowledge you need to select the right foods. Second, most of us have to spend a lot more time on the job than we do in the kitchen, and third, there’s that root of all evil, money. Not everyone can afford the quality of diet we want for our kids.”
It’s true that grocery stores don’t come with operating instructions, or even all the healthy food separated out from the items that aren’t. And the experts disagree often enough about what’s good for your family, that they even replaced the “food pyramid” we all grew up with, offering in its place the “healthy plate” (next page). These days, just about everything comes with a breakdown of nutritional content on the packaging, but who knows how to use that information to choose what your kids eat?
Some practical food for thought
“It can seem complicated,” admitted nutritionist Diane Greenleaf-Kisner, RDN from Healthy Green Nutrition. “But there are some basics you can easily keep in mind. First, find some fruits and vegetables your kids like and they’ll be more likely to eat them. Carrots and grapes are a lot better snacks than cookies and sweets. Next add protein and/or good fat such as lean beef, chicken, turkey, eggs, fish, pork, low fat cheese, and beans. Good fat includes nut butter such as peanut butter, nuts, avocado, olives, olive oil and canola oil. When you get bread or rice, whole grain is better than white, and watch out for too much of two things: sugar and salt. Kids love sugary fruit drinks, but see if you can limit those in favor of dairy and sugar-free drinks.”
Unfortunately, there are not a lot of easy solutions to the problem of how little time many of us have to spend in the kitchen. Sure, there are endless suggestions for “quick and easy” recipes online. But if your household is like the millions out there who have to spend most of their week and energy just making a living, it’s pretty hard to make time to shop for recipes and learn to cook them.
For Rochelle Bryant, getting a little creative has helped. “One thing that has worked well for me is to cook meals when I have more time, like on the weekend. I’ll buy several meals worth of chicken quarters, for example, cook them, then freeze them in bags for each meal. That way the most time consuming work is already done, and I’m not having to mess with it at the end of a long day.”
One word to the wise, though. Take any advice to cook a whole week’s meals, week in and week out, with a huge grain of salt. The pressure you’ll put yourself under will begin to diminish the returns your family will get from better nutrition. Get the family involved in planning (and preparing, if you can) a schedule of meals. It will help build some buy-in for what’s on the menu, instill some responsibility among the kiddos and distribute the load for everyone’s mental health.
Bring home more bacon with less bread
Ultimately, though, it’s that third reason we don’t eat well, namely money, that forms the bottom line on the issue. It may be true that we are what we eat, but it is just as true that we are what we can afford to eat. The pandemic has been far less than helpful as families with children who reported hunger as an issue increased in 2020 by as much as 83% with as many as 13 million children who were living with food insecurity.
So if you’re one of those families who spend up to 35% of your monthly income on food, here are a few best practices that will help you eat better for less:
- Plan before you shop. Lists are your best friend in a grocery store. Think them through and stick to them to keep from buying what you don’t need.
- Shop smart. Fruits and veggies cost less when they are in season. You can also save if they’re frozen or canned. Buy meats in family sizes and freeze them for future use. And never shop when you’re hungry.
- Have coffee that will travel. A thermos full from home saves a lot over the daily stop at Starbucks.
- Waste not, want not. Know what’s in the cupboard and fridge and make use of what you find. And leftovers are a good thing, if you don’t let them sit too long.
Want to learn more? There are programs at places like the YMCA and the Kansas State Extension Center for both Sedgwick and Shawnee Counties that teach a variety of cooking skills as well as how to get the most out of your grocery shopping. There’s also a “Double Up” program available when you shop with a SNAP EBT Card at Kansas Farmers Markets that will match whatever you spend on fruits and vegetables.
Additional Resources (links open in a new window):
- Learn the Power of Eating Right (YMCA)
- Hands on Cooking & Education (YMCA)
- Nutrition Health & Wellness (K State Extension Office)
- Double Up Heartland
- Kansas Grown Farmers Market
This post originated in our State of Grace quarterly news magazine. If you would like to receive the magazine, please visit this link and give us your information. Thanks!