Living the WELL Life

Back to School Naturally with Chef Mel

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

     After a summer of sleeping in and doing things at a slower pace, the first day of school can be a rude awakening for both parents and children. Whether your child is starting kindergarten or in their last year as a senior, going back to school is a time of transition with new classes, new teachers, new schedules, and new friends. The end of summer and the beginning of a new school year can be stressful and parents can sometimes overlook their children’s feelings of nervousness or anxiety as school begins.  Fortunately, children are extremely skilled at coping with change. Parents can help them in the process by providing a supportive home environment, nourishing food, and space to listen and offer encouragement.
     To ease the transition, here are some simple ways to help your child get ready for the new school year. 

Enjoy a Wholesome Organic Diet

     Strengthening the immune system is important.  Along with the hustle and bustle of a new term comes the increased chance of colds, flus, stomach bugs from both increased exposure as well as a stressed system. With the start of school comes increased demands on our time and energy. When things get really busy, it may be tempting to cut corners where nutrition is concerned.  Thus, there is no time like going back to school to give your child a wholesome diet.

     It is important to include a plenty of vegetables, a variety of whole grains, pastas, breads, all kinds of beans, some fish (if desired), good quality oils like olive and sesame, and natural, home-made, sugar-free cookies, pies, cakes, and other desserts as part of you child’s daily diet.  A plant-based diet provides “brain food” that  provides energy and stamina to help children stay alert. Plant-based diets also keep the immune strong and healthy. 
     Enjoying a variety of organic whole-foods including fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, and whole grains helps to increase immune function and prevent viruses and bacterial issues. A wholesome diet can also increase athletic performance, improve focus and concentration, and decrease health issues like allergies and asthma.  These are important benefits that positively affect all children regardless of age or grade. 

     In contrast, icy drinks, cold foods, and excessive amounts of raw fruits and juices can weaken the immune system.  Excessive juice consumption can make your system more acidic; low pH can repress your immune system.  Also, the current belief in macrobiotics these days is that fruit and juices are high in simple sugars which can weaken immune function by their very nature.  Remember, too, that raw foods, including fruit, allow the body to shed heat and stay cool because of their high moisture content. So you might want to monitor the intake of these foods as it gets colder.   In some colder climates, it might be necessary to include cod liver oil as a supplement for children who don’t eat animal food.

     Most children like eating snacks. Unfortunately, many snack foods are highly processed, loaded with sugar, and contain a bevy of chemical additives. Traditional snacks like cookies, boxed cereals, chips, and sodas are among the worst culprits. Laden with artificial additives, these foods will weaken the immune system, contribute to emotional outbursts, and create weight problems. Snacking can also become problematic if children fill up on these nutritionally-empty foods and then don’t want to eat their healthy dinner. This can also lead to family conflict during meal times.

     There’s no way around it… kids are going to be hungry when they get home from school.  So make sure to offer good, quality snacks such as miso ramen, fruit, vegetable sticks with healthy dips, steamed bread with spreads, sushi, nori snacks, sugar-free apple sauce, natural nut butters, home-made fruit smoothies, salads, or toasted nuts and seeds.  Once these foods become a part of your child’s daily routine, you are well on your way.
     It is important not to be too strict or one sided with children. Limiting desserts or restricting richer foods may actually encourage them to forage for themselves.  Remember to look at your own daily diet too. Children follow their parents.  If you enjoy a variety of whole, living foods, it encourages them to follow.  Set a good example. Make sure you are preparing balanced meals with enough variety.  

     Eating a nourishing breakfast is a vital part of a healthy lifestyle for children and helps them develop good eating habits in general.  Kids are inclined to do better in school if they eat a healthy breakfast, especially when it comes to mental clarity and focus. Breakfast also provides the necessary “oomph” to participate in physical activities and maintain even energy levels. 

     In contrast, kids who don't eat breakfast can experience less energy for learning and feel more tired towards the end of the day. Also, skipping breakfast makes it tougher for kids to maintain a healthy weight and stay slim. Those who skip breakfast are likely to eat more calories throughout the day, and there is a tendency towards a higher body mass index (BMI), which is a sign of being overweight.  Indeed, there are numerous studies exploring the relationship between breakfast and Body Mass Index (BMI).  

     For example, data from the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES III), a large, population-based study conducted in the United States from 1988 to 1994 (to name but one), establishes a direct correlation between breakfast type and BMI.  They conclude that “skipping breakfast is not an effective way to manage weight,” nor is regularly eating meat and eggs as both these approaches regularly result in higher BMI.  On the other hand, the study finds that eating healthy cereal/grains and/or fruits and vegetables for breakfast results in noticeably-lower BMI.  In my opinion, this is healthier direction in which to take our kids.

     Unlike the "refined" breakfasts most children are eating today, a high-fiber, low-fat, low-sugar breakfast promotes great energy levels. Refined, high sugar, high-calorie  products like donuts, enriched cereals with sugar, white-flour pancakes and muffins, white bread, bagels, and morning cakes may taste good to kids first thing in the morning, but they can seriously sap energy levels, spike blood-sugar levels, promote weight gain, and create sugar highs that interfere with concentration in class.   

     Many people turn to processed breakfast foods because they are convenient.  But breakfast doesn't have to be exotic to be nutritious. Kids can start the day on simple, easy and healthful breakfasts.  High-energy breakfasts can include a variety of whole grains cooked into hot cereals corn grits, oats, cous cous, brown rice or millet. Also, whole grain breads, sugar-free muffins, sugar-free cereals, whole-grain pancakes, pan-fried mochi, scrambled tofu, tofu French toast, humus, soups, veggies, berries, vegetable juices, smoothies, and herbal teas provide a nutritional wallop and taste great, too. 

Daily Routine
     It is important to create a stable home environment with daily routines including regular meals, baths, naps, home work, and bed time. Routines help eliminate power struggles; as they become natural, there is no need for nagging. Routines also help a child to feel in charge as they learn to master everyday skills like packing their backpack, doing their homework, and getting ready for bed without constant reminders.

     Eating meals together is extremely important and will help your child to feel safe, secure, and an integral part of the family. It is also a great time to get to know your child and for everyone to share the events of their day.  As we swing into the school year, our schedules may become hectic and stressful.  Family meals are often sacrificed and replaced by less intimate and certainly less nutritious meals.  Maintaining a healthy family meal time is a vital way to maintain both emotional and physical well being.

     Keep in mind that a following routines is just as important for parents as it is for children.  With solid routines in place, everyone in the house is more likely to stick to healthy habits as the day flows more smoothly with less stress and frantic rushing around.  Nobody likes to start their day with conflict.  Being organized in the mornings makes a big difference and can prevent stressful encounters and that crazy dash to get out the door in time for work and school. Some simple preparations the night before can make it all go like clockwork. Have backpacks ready, clothes laid out ready for the next day, breakfast partially prepared (so it can be warmed up in the morning), lunch items in one place, etc.  

     Your child's body regenerates, repairs and renews itself while sleeping. A good night’s sleep not only helps them stay attentive and focused, but it also helps their bodies fight off infections.  Make sure your kids are well-rested for the beginning of the school year and go to bed at a reasonable hour.  A week before the first day of school, set bedtime 15 minutes earlier, pushing back a little more each night so that it feels natural when school begins.

     In addition, it is important to include "quiet time" as part of your child's day when they can unwind and learn the value of being calm. Let your child listen to peaceful music that is stress relieving and further helps them feel relaxed and happy. Quiet activities like reading or coloring can be encouraged if your child is too old for a nap.

Enjoy Nature and the Outdoors
     Give your child plenty of fresh air, especially during the school year, to help balance out the full days of  focused, sometimes intense, study inside the classroom. Nature is an excellent immune stimulator and being exposed in a happy, healthy way does wonders to all aspects of your child’s life. Go for walks in the woods, the country, or a nice park. Let your child run, jump, dance, climb, and let off steam. Don’t coddle your child. If they want to run without a hat or gloves, let them do so. Allow them to run barefoot on the grass (within reason of course), and climb trees. Encourage your teenager to go out for a walk even if it is only for 15 minutes or so.

     Children need to spend some time every day outside in the sun without sunscreen in order to absorb vitamin D through their skin.  Even a short time of play outside can make all the difference. Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin, so make sure they are getting a good source of fat such as olive and sesame oils, nuts, seeds, nut butters, beans and bean products.

Toss the Hand Sanitizer (It does make a difference)
     Everywhere you go nowadays, there is hand sanitizer.  Unfortunately, hand sanitizer does not distinguish between “good” and “bad” or organisms.  It is important to have good bacteria in our diets, and it is counter productive to use something that wipes them all out.  That is why we need to toss the hand sanitizer. Instead, have your children wash their hands with good old soap and water.

     While a hand sanitizer does kill bad bacteria, it also kills the good bacteria which constitute a huge part of our immune system.  Hand sanitizers have also been implicated in creating super bacteria as organisms mutate and develop immunity to conventional prevention and treatment.  

Listen to Your Kids
     Often children can feel stressed about going back to school. The first step in helping your kids feel more relaxed is listening what’s going on with them. And if they aren’t talking, of if your child doesn’t seem like  themselves, use your intuition.  Begin a casual conversation enquiring about school while you’re in the car, at the store, or doing chores around the house together. Don’t push for answers or put pressure on them. Try to keep it light and relaxed. Be mindful of what your children are going through and let them know you are there to help them in the process. It is important to encourage your children to face their fears instead of falling into the traps of avoidance and denial. Explain that being nervous is normal and ok, and that most times things that are new and different turn out to be much better than imagined. 

     Be mindful of over-scheduling.  There are many wonderful extracurricular activities for your child to do outside school, but take care not to load on too much and create more stress than enjoyment for your child. It is just as important that kids take time to relax and have some unscheduled free time at home or outdoors. Make sure they have at least one “free” weekday after school, and stick to that plan for the entire school year. This will help your child to feel more relaxed, re-energized, and ready for the rest of the week.

Making the First Day Easier 
     Remind your child that there are probably a lot of other children who are uneasy about the first day of school. Teachers know that students are anxious and will make an extra effort to make sure everyone feels as comfortable as possible.  Have everything ready the night before… clothes, books, and backpack.  Plan a nutritious breakfast and if your child is taking a bagged lunch, include something that they love.  Chat about the positive aspects of starting school -- the fun, making new friends, reconnecting with old friends, playing games, enjoying art and other creative pursuits.  If necessary and appropriate, drive or walk your child to school on the first day. 


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