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Eating Better for a Successful Start to School: 5 Things You Should Know

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If you are what you eat, my kids are barbecued ice pops -- not a great first impression for their new teachers. I have only my drinking problem to blame. My kids have inherited their parents' love of good food. I can put just about any healthy meal in front of them, and they thank me and devour it. They'll take sushi over a hot dog; rice and beans over french fries. The girls' favorite show is Chopped, on the Food Network. They will eat fast or frozen food, but only when their kid intuition kicks in and tells them their mom needs the break to stay sane. During the school year, I love to cook for my captive, little audience. During the summer though, when five o'clock hits, a sweet tea vodka & lemonade on the beach is so much more appealing than a hot kitchen. Any of you who share my love of the shore will understand. Dinnertime is the best time on the beach. The air is cooler, the kids are happier and the day takes on a wonderful calm. I'll sacrifice three squares a day a couple of months out of the year in exchange for this little slice of heaven. But, in short time, the kids will be back to school. I have to start feeding their little brains the good stuff.

Why?

1. Food and the immune system - I think two of my kids had a runny nose for about 24 hours this summer -- that's it. Hopefully, your family was as lucky. We are spending all of our time in the relatively germ-free great outdoors. Soon, our kids will be sitting in small classrooms, breathing the same stale air as lots of other kids -- it's a germ paradise. Good nutrition will support their immune system and help them defend themselves against all those invisible bugs.

2. Food and sleep - Sleep is so important for a strong start to the school year. A healthy diet will encourage healthy sleep habits. Avoid snacks, especially sugary ones, 1-2 hours before bed. It will make the dreaded bedtime routine easier for everyone.

3. Food and smarts - Studies show that children who get a good, low-sugar breakfast followed by a similarly healthy lunch, perform better academically, are better able to focus on tasks and have more mental stamina throughout the day. I find that my kids' preferences change as they grow. Because of the morning rush, breakfast can be a challenge for us -- maybe for you too? Start a breakfast routine now. Feed them soon after they wake up as opposed to doing what I have been doing -- waiting for them to beg. Get comfortable with some of their new or old favorites and stock up before September.

What?

4. The Good Stuff - It is impossible to discuss what children should be eating in a few lines. Here is the upshot. Try to encourage 3 servings of fruit, 3 servings of vegetables and 2 servings of dairy a day. Push the whole grains and lean protein. Keep fruits and vegetables in easy to access location, cut into easy to eat pieces. Remember that raw veggies have more nutrients than cooked ones. So, if they munch on raw carrots and cucumber for a snack, don't sweat it if they don't finish the steamed broccoli at dinner. Just like breakfast, start doing a little investigative work into what healthy foods your kids will eat out of a brown bag. You can pack a great, nutritious lunch, but if they aren't eating it, it isn't doing anyone any good. Watch them over the next week to nail down their favorites.

5. The Bad Stuff a.k.a Sugar - It pains me to knock sugar because my sweet tooth is the strongest bone in my body. However, too much of it is not a good thing for kids -- or adults, but I'm not going there today. During the summer, ice cream, soda and candy may not appear to turn your child into a raving lunatic. Your kids are likely running around, expending all that extra energy. And, when they crash after a sugar high, it seems as if they are just enjoying a lazy summer moment. Enter long days sitting in classrooms, after-school activities and the horrible, horrible homework hours. Now do you remember what sugar will do to their ability to sit still and focus? Start encouraging water instead of sugary drinks, sweet fruit instead of candy and a walk instead of dessert. Pay attention to how much sugar is in the processed and prepared foods your kids are eating -- it is probably more than you think.

For so many reasons, one of the best things you can do for your kids is to teach them a healthy relationship with food. As much as I hate to say it, they will follow your example. Put down the coke and pick up the water -- at least when they're looking. Make them take notice of the relationship between what they eat and how they feel. Ultimately, you will not be around to pack their lunch.