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Back to School Series Part One: Nutrition

As kids get ready to start back to school, parents are busy gearing up for the changes that come along with that. In this series, we look at ways to make sure your kids eat healthy, get the most out of studying and get a positive start to their school day.

It's time once again to get back into the routine of packing school lunches or making sure kids have lunch money as they head out the door. Springfield Public Schools open back up a week from today. Several area schools are already open or open this week.

While you want your children's lunches to be appealing to them, you also want them to be nutritious. Tammy Roberts, nutrition and health education specialist with the University of Missouri Extension, explains what a lunch from home should consist of.

"We recommend that a school lunch from home contain a grain and, preferably, a whole grain, a vegetable, a fruit, a protein and a milk."

Roberts says it can be as simple as sending a lean turkey sandwich on whole wheat bread with lettuce and tomato and an apple and having kids purchase a carton of milk at school.

She says there are several options for healthful school lunches such as mini bagels made from whole wheat flour, rice cakes with peanut butter, whole wheat crackers, pita bread sandwiches or tortilla roll-up sandwiches. You might also include vegetables with dip.

While some schools don't allow kids to trade food, there may be others that do. Roberts says there's a way you can discourage trading of food items.

"If a child has a role in packing their own lunch, they're more likely to eat foods that they take, and so the parents job is to make sure that a good variety of healthful foods are available for them to choose from."

According to Roberts, good nutrition is critically important to a child's ability to learn.

"Research actually shows that children who are nutritionally fit are more likely to have the energy, stamina and self-esteem that enhance the ability to learn."

Roberts says you need to make sure your child has enough time in the morning to eat breakfast, even it's dry cereal, half of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or a granola bar eaten on the run.

"We know that children who consume a breakfast actually learn better in the late morning hours. They still have the energy to learn, so it actually provides energy for their brain so they can think."

For those eating lunches purchased at school, Roberts says you can help make sure your child chooses the most healthful options. Many schools, even elementary, give children choices at lunch time.

"One thing that we recommend is that you look at the menus with the children and talk to them about the choices beforehand so that they're making the best choices. Schools are required to have no more than 30 percent of the calories from fat, and they are required to offer fruits and vegetables, but the requirements are that they meet them over the course of a week, so you can watch the menus and decide with your child which ones they eat and then they can take their lunch on the other days."

Steve Smay, nutrition services director for Springfield Public Schools, says they follow nutrition guidelines set by the US Dept. of Agriculture. In addition, the MO Department of Education, which has been given the authority to administer the Child Nutrition Programs, has developed a set of nutritional guidelines called "Missouri Eat Smart."

Currently, they have three different levels: basic, which puts a school in compliance with USDA standards; an intermediate level and an advanced level to assist districts if they want to take the lunches offered to a higher level.

"The difference between the minimum or the basic and intermediate and the advanced really has to do with some of the things that you actually have in your program such as, if you're going to be in the advanced level you serve fresh fruits more often. You serve more fresh vegetables. You have some whole grains in the program. It also has to do with the frequency in which those are offered."

Smay says Springfield has been at the advanced level since it was published around a year and a half ago.

With food costs rising, school districts are feeling the pinch. Smay says they could have reduced the number of healthy options offered, but they didn't want to do that. So, they've instead increased the cost of school lunches effective this fall, the first price increase in five years.

"We increased lunch prices across the board by 25 cents, and breakfast prices we increased by 10 cents."

If you decide to send lunch with your child rather than having them purchase one at school, Tammy Roberts says to use an insulated lunch box and an ice pack or a frozen juice box to keep food fresh.

This program is available on the web at ksmu.org.

For KSMU News, I'm Michele Skalicky.