When It Comes to Our Kids’ Diets, Let’s Get Real

This blog post is part of Food Day's first-ever coordinated blogging event. Read more about the event and get links to the participating blogs!

Parents want the best for their kids, especially when it comes to their health. While many things can keep kids healthy — like proper sleep and regular doctor visits — what’s on the dinner table may have the greatest influence on a child’s health now and well into adulthood. 

That’s why educating parents and kids about the importance of eating balanced meals with “real foods” is one of the focus areas for national Food Day — held October 24th and aimed at inspiring Americans to change their diets and national food policies. 

On the front lines advancing this initiative is registered dietitian nutritionist Jaimie Lopez, who meets with families daily to counsel them on gaining proper nutrition. It’s not always an easy task. One of the greatest challenges that parents face, she finds, is the lack of clear, concise information about which foods are smart choices and which should be avoided.

“With so many food products and so much information regarding what should or shouldn’t be consumed, families can feel overwhelmed about how to feed their children a healthy diet,” Jaimie says. 

A major part of this confusion comes from food labels. Food packaging is cluttered with claims such as “low-sugar,” “high fiber,” and “good source of calcium,” but a careful review of the nutrition facts panel reveals that the food may not be as healthy as the packaging implies, Jaimie adds. 

If food labels can be confusing to a nutritionist, how’s a parent supposed to make the right choices?

Activists have been pushing for updates to the 20-year-old nutrition facts panel to help consumers make smarter choices. Their efforts paid off recently when the Food and Drug Association proposed changes that included larger and bolder fonts for serving sizes, declarations of added sugars, and listed amounts of essential vitamins and minerals such as vitamin D and potassium. 

Even if the updated nutrition facts panel helps parents make healthier choices for foods at home, what about the meals kids eat at school? After all, 32 million children participate in the National School Lunch program with many of them consuming at least half their meals at school. 

Due to pitfalls in budgets, staffing and resources, many school lunch programs lack balanced, nutrient-dense meals. But that’s changing now thanks in part to the Let’s Move initiative led by First Lady Michelle Obama that demanded a revamp of school lunches. The U.S. Department of Agriculture set new standards to boost the nutritional quality of school meals in 2012.

“The new regulations with school meals get kids to eat more ‘real food’ by increasing the availability of fruits and vegetables, whole grains and fat-free and low-fat milk; reduce the levels of sodium and saturated fat in meals; and help meet the nutrition needs of school children within their calorie requirements,” says Wesley Delbridge, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

As director of the Food and Nutrition Department for the Chandler Unified School District in Arizona, Wesley hopes that improved school lunches will not only better the dietary habits of children, but also improve the confidence of parents and families in the nutritional quality of the school meal.

While parents and school lunch programs undeniably play a vital role in improving the health of children, it ultimately comes down to kids making healthy choices themselves. 

“Taking kids shopping for groceries and letting them pick out the veggie for the night, allowing them in the kitchen to help prepare dinner, or starting a small garden with them are all great ways to help kids explore the wonderful world of real food,” recommends Melinda Johnson, MS, RDN, and president of the Arizona Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

On this Food Day, celebrate the steps taken to improve the health and nutrition of kids, but know that it’s an ongoing task and one in which all play a part. 

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Gillean Barkyoumb
Gillean Barkyoumb, MS, RDN, is the creator of Millennial Nutrition, a hub of nutrition information for health-conscious foodies. Get inspired by connecting with her on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook.