Back to School: Help Kids Eat Healthy and Stay Active this Year

back to school lunch health kids

ThedaCare Dietician Offers Suggestions for Families

The coronavirus pandemic has caused a major disruption to most family schedules, making it easier to fall out of maintaining healthy family habits. As many students and families prepare for a school year that includes in-person and virtual learning, it is important to develop plans for eating well and staying active. 

“First, it’s best for families to focus on overall health, rather than fixating on avoiding weight gain,” said Ashley Krautkramer, ThedaCare Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Care and Education Specialist. “Children are supposed to gain a healthy amount of weight as they grow, and establishing a positive attitude around meals can create a good relationship with food that continues into adulthood.” 

While providing healthy, balanced meals is important, it’s equally important simply to provide regular meals and snacks for children, particularly during a time when the rest of their schedule may have fallen apart.

“Regular meals provide a structure that can help children feel more secure in uncertain times,” Krautkramer said. “Kids tend to do better when they have some predictability to their day.”

Providing breakfast, lunch and dinner – and some snack times – on a regular schedule that make sense for your family can provide the necessary calories kids need, as well as ensure a sense of consistency.

“It’s important to remember that a lot of kids don’t have access to healthy foods all the time,” she said. “If that’s happening in your family, don’t feel guilty about what kinds of foods you’re providing – regular meals are the most important.”

Keeping picky eaters on track can be troublesome, but the key is offering several types of food groups at a meal. While kids shouldn’t be in charge of choosing meals, they should have a voice. 

“Giving them an avenue to have input or to help with meals can sometimes remove some of the stress of figuring out what to eat,” Krautkramer said. “Kids can feel empowered when they know they helped create something that nourishes their family.” 

Additionally, think of snack time as a mini-meal – offering a couple of options can help fill in the nutrition gaps from rejected items at meals. Even allowing some less-than-healthy snacks is acceptable.

“While it’s important to build a positive attitude around healthy eating, keeping a neutral attitude about junk food helps prevent kids from wanting the unhealthy foods more,” Krautkramer said.

Planting a garden or creating vegetable boxes together can be a great activity to help fill in some of the at-home time, and when kids grow their own food they tend to get more excited about eating those items.

“Children also mimic what they see their parents do, so we have some great opportunities to eat well as a family, setting a good example for little ones,” she said. “Back to school time is a good time to “reset” after maybe not eating the best during summer months.”

This year, there are some challenges as many students will see a blend of in-person and virtual learning. If you have a student who will be learning from home, or you will be working from home, take some time to plan.

“Now is a great time to develop a habit of planning meals for the next two weeks and create a shopping list that has you sticking to healthy food choices and ultimately healthy meals,” suggested Krautkramer. “You can also meal prep. You will likely eat healthier if your good food is already made.”

And remember, keeping it simple is key.

“Not every meal has to be gourmet,” she said. “Try to think of all of the different food groups – grains, protein, dairy, vegetables and fruits – when planning healthy meals. Then, include at least three different food groups at each meal and two different food groups at each snack time.”

Working in regular play time or exercise time is also important if students are learning virtually. 

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), toddlers need at least 60 minutes of active play per day, and they should not be sedentary for more than 60 minutes at a time, unless they are sleeping. The AAP recommends preschoolers have 120 minutes of active play each day and school-age kids need 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity.

Remember, children often follow the examples set by parents.

“Share their interests,” said Krautkramer. “If your child has an interest in sports, play the sport with them. Play catch in the backyard, or even sign up to coach their team. If they are not into organized sports, figure out what their interests are. Kids, especially teens, are much more likely to engage in an activity if they feel they have been part of the decision-making process.”

Parents looking for resources about creating healthy, positive mealtimes have a number of options online, including the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the American Academy of Pediatrics

ThedaCare and Go Valley Kids are teaming up in 2020 to help families be healthier, more active and enjoy Northeast and Central Wisconsin.

Thedacare & Go Valley Kids

About ThedaCare

For more than 110 years, ThedaCare® has been committed to improving the health of the communities it serves in northeast and central Wisconsin. The organization delivers care to more than 600,000 residents in 18 counties and employs approximately 7,000 health care professionals. ThedaCare has 180 points of care, including seven hospitals. As an organization committed to being a leader in Population Health, team members are dedicated to empowering people to live their best lives through easy access to individualized care, supporting each person’s own health and wellbeing. ThedaCare also partners with communities to understand unique needs, finding solutions together, and encouraging health awareness and action. ThedaCare is the first in Wisconsin to be a Mayo Clinic Care

Network Member, giving specialists the ability to consult with Mayo Clinic experts on a patient’s care. ThedaCare is a not-for-profit health system with a level II trauma center, comprehensive cancer treatment, stroke and cardiac programs, as well as primary care.

For more information, visit or follow ThedaCare on Facebook and Twitter.


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