Research shows children who are nutritionally fit are more likely to have the energy, stamina and self-esteem that enhance their ability to learn.
Parents can help ensure that children are well-nourished and ready-to-learn by considering a few basic nutritional steps, according to Dr. Pam Duitsman, nutrition and health education specialist, University of Missouri Extension.
The most important step is to start the day with a healthy breakfast according Duitsman.
"For children and teens, a morning meal is especially important," said Duitsman. "Studies have shown those who eat a morning meal tend to perform better in school, score higher on tests, have higher school attendance, less tardiness, better concentration and muscle coordination and are less likely to be overweight."
One way to get a child to eat before going to school is to make breakfast fun. Keep quick-to-fix foods on hand or get breakfast foods ready the night before, such as mixing a pitcher of juice.
"If kids say they are not hungry, start them out with something light like juice or toast and send them off with a nutritious mid-morning snack," said Duitsman.
Meals served at school contribute significantly to kids overall nutrient and energy needs.
School meals are usually regulated through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and are designed to supply about one-third of a child's nutrition needs.
"Parents can play a role in helping a child choose healthy meals," said Duitsman. "Keep the school lunch menu in your kitchen, go over it with your child, and talk with your child about making choices in the cafeteria line."
If a child prefers to take lunch to school, let the child help plan and prepare it.
"When children are involved, chances are they will resist trading their carrots for cookies," said Duitsman.
Pack meals that are easy to prepare and fun to eat as well as nutritious. A few examples are sandwiches, raw veggies, crackers, string cheese, whole fruit and yogurt or pudding.
For after-school snacks, choose foods that supply needed nutrients. Stock up with ready-to-eat fruits and vegetables, animal crackers, popcorn and cereal. Children will appreciate the availability of quick healthy snacks.
"Proper nutrition is crucial for social, emotional and psychological development," said Duitsman. "Teaching children how to eat healthy will enable them to establish a foundation of good nutrition and healthful lifestyle habits that will benefit them for the rest of their lives."
The goal of University of Missouri Extension's Family Nutrition Education Program is to assist Missourians with limited resources in achieving lifelong health and fitness. In southwest Missouri, programs for youth and adults provide nutrition, food safety and tasting opportunities that allow participants to learn about healthy food choices and regular physical activity.
Partnering with other agencies -- like schools, after-school programs, summer youth programs, WIC, Head Start, Health Departments, Food Stamp offices and a variety of social service agencies providing services to limited--income families -- is a key to FNEP's success.
For more information, contact FNEP coordinator Pam Duitsman at 417-886-2059.