One of the big adjustments for children in September is the shift from outside activities to lots of time indoors and sitting in the classroom. This usually means a lot less physical activity. Once the weather becomes grey and wet (and you know it will happen here!), avoid the temptation of computer or television when school is out. Instead, think of active things to do together like working in the garden, walking to the park or doing some errands. Alternatively, sign your child up for organized sports teams or after-school activities such as soccer, martial arts, gymnastics, yoga or dance.
It’s story time (yes, already)!
Sleep schedules also need some adjustment when school starts. Early morning starts make getting to bed on time crucial to having a productive and happy day. Sleep is essential for overall body growth including physical recuperation, brain development, learning, memory, and information processing, as well as the proper functioning of other systems of the human body. Sleep is vital to keeping a healthy immune system. Without adequate sleep, the immune system becomes weak, and the body becomes more vulnerable to infection and disease. Also, many hormones (substances produced to trigger or regulate particular body functions) are timed for release during sleep or right before sleep. Growth hormones, for example, are released during sleep, and are fundamental to growing children as well as restorative processes like muscle repair.
Children have a lot going on at school - mentally, emotionally and physically – and they need a lot of time to rest and recover. Try to have your children in bed at a set hour where they can get 10-12 hours of sleep a night until they are about 9 years old. (The general guideline for 9-12 year olds is about 9-10 hours of sleep.) For young children, you may need to adjust going to bed earlier by moving their bedtime back 10-15 minutes a day during the week before or the first week of school. Every child is different so be attentive to his/her needs. Figure out what works best for your child. Consistency is the key to establishing a healthy sleep habit. This includes having bedtime routines and setting bedtime and wake times.
Wake up and fill up the tank for the day
It’s true - breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Studies show that children who regularly eat a balanced breakfast score better on tests and have less behavioral problems (i.e. are less hyperactive) than children who don’t have one. Think of the meaning of the word breakfast - breaking a fast after a very long period of not eating (all night and then some). So it’s important to have a proper balanced meal with all the components including protein. As for all meals during the day, try to avoid sugar.
A typical breakfast in many homes is as sweet as a dessert: processed breakfast cereal (sugar) with milk (more sugar), toast and jam (even more sugar), served with a glass of fruit juice (still more sugar). All carbohydrates break down into sugars in the body. When children consume sugar-rich foods they get an artificial high, rapidly raising the levels of sugar and adrenaline in their bloodstream. High consumption of sugar can create anxiety and concentration problems. Too much sugar could also create behavioral problems like hyperactivity and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) symptoms. In fact, more and more experts are recognizing the role good nutrition plays in relieving the symptoms of ADHD.
How can you avoid starting your children’s day off on a sugar high? Serve whole foods instead of processed or packaged foods and keep it balanced as with lunch and dinner. This means including a portion of protein, complex carbohydrates and good fats – basic building blocks to good nutrition. Try whole-grain cereals such as rolled oats, quinoa, or millet cooked with water and a pinch of salt. You can add plain organic yogurt for a complete protein and/or whole fruit for natural sweetness and top with nuts and seeds for healthy fats. You can also try toasted whole grain bread with fruit, cheese or nut butters. (Sliced bananas on whole grain toast with almond butter are a favorite quick breakfast in our home). If you have the time there’s always the option of a vegetable omelet. Whole foods at breakfast give your children enduring energy and brain power. Eating well also helps normalize weight gain and stabilize moods during the day.
Healthy snack attack
Children love to learn so use snacks to teach your kids about why you make your food choices and how it helps the environment. One of the problems with packaged snacks is the packaging – all the plastics cups, wrappers, and boxes that end up polluting our environment.
So how do you give your children snacks that are interesting and healthy and don’t come pre-packaged? Fruit is an easy solution, especially ones that are easy to pack and stay fresh like cherries, blueberries, plums, grapes, and apples (rub lemon on the slices to prevent browning). You can also try nuts or a homemade trail mix, sunflower seeds, raisins or popcorn. Dried fruits on their own are also an option, but a little goes a long way as they are concentrated. Avoid bright orange dried apricots or peaches because they can contain sulphites.
Children usually love to dip their food. Carrot sticks, celery sticks and fresh broccoli florets are good snacks and can be fun to eat with dips or spreads. You can make a quick dip with strained yogurt and then add a little olive oil and fresh minced herbs like dill or chives (keeps for a week or so in the refrigerator). Or try yogurt with a bit of cinnamon and vanilla. You can also try small whole-wheat pita breads cut in half and filled with hummus. Another idea is to spread a small whole-wheat tortilla with nut butter or goat’s cheese, roll and slice. To avoid too much snacking, keep in mind that children don’t necessarily need a snack before lunch if they had a good breakfast. Most importantly, invest in a few reusable containers and make sure to write your child’s name on them so they come home after school with your child and not somewhere else! Reusable plastic food containers with the lids attached are the easiest to use since you don’t have to worry about missing pieces! You can find them in most supermarkets like Delhaize and Colruyt
If there are organized snacks at your child’s school – ask that they be healthy snacks and not junk food. In other words, ask for whole foods and not processed foods which contain chemical preservatives, hydrogenated oils, sugar, synthetic vitamins, etc. My daughter’s class has a shared fruit snack on Wednesdays and every week a different family brings the day’s snack. It’s a fun way for the kids to try new fruits and veggies, and you know everyone is having a healthy snack that day.
After school, you can try home-made frozen fruit bars for a fresh treat! In a blender, puree strawberries, nectarines, bananas - whatever fruits you think would go well together - until smooth. (If you want, you can pass the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve but I prefer to have the whole fruit.) Pour the mixture into ice cream pop molds or paper cups. Insert sticks, and then freeze until firm, at least 4 hours and up to 1 week. Frozen grapes are also great to snack on. Smoothies are really good in warm weather – add organic rice milk (check to make sure there are no added sugars in it) to top off a cup of frozen fruit (bananas, berries) and mix it up in the blender.
Something important to know - natural fruit juices are not as healthy as you might think. Fruit juices are calorie-dense, low-fiber foods that are also quickly consumed but less filling than foods that contain high amounts of fiber. Fruit juice has about eight full teaspoons of sugar, a fruit sugar called fructose, which can be as dangerous as regular table sugar since it will also cause a major increase in insulin levels. In general, it’s better to eat the fresh fruit whole than to drink fruit juice. A way to minimize your child’s consumption of fruit juice is to gradually dilute the juice with more and more water. Start by pouring a glass halfway with juice and top it off with an equivalent amount of water. You can also flavor water with a teaspoon of fresh lemon or lime juice. This can help get children in the habit of drinking water regularly. I keep fruit juices as a “sometimes” drink for my daughter and make sure she gets enough water during the day to stay hydrated.
Note: Our bodies produce insulin to keep our blood sugar at an appropriate level. Any meal or snack high in grain and sugar carbohydrates like fruit juice usually generates a rapid rise in blood glucose. To compensate for this, the pancreas secretes insulin into the bloodstream, which lowers blood sugar. This rapid rise in blood sugar levels stimulates the release of too much insulin, which causes blood sugar levels to plummet, resulting in irritability and crankiness. A diet consistently high in sugar desensitizes our body to insulin and we require more and more of it to keep our sugar level safe. Eventually, if this continues, we can become insulin resistant, and then diabetic.
Before they head out the door…
Back to school can also mean dealing with the dreaded head lice. You can help your child keep them away with some non-toxic natural solutions. And if lice make it to your child’s head anyway, eliminate lice the non-toxic way so there is no risk for your child’s health or for the health of the planet. Standard anti-lice solutions contain chemical poisons, or as some like to say, insecticides for your head! One of the natural products I rely on is the ECO-Shampoo #5 from “La Florcita”. It’s an all-natural “anti-poux” formula that keeps lice away with organic flower and herbal extracts. It’s easy to use – just shampoo for 3 minutes and rinse. Keeping the shampoo on longer won’t make it more effective, it will just dry out your little one’s hair. You can also use it if your child gets lice. Just use a nit comb after shampooing to get out the bugs and eggs. The extracts work to kill the lice and they come out with combing. You can find the shampoo at bio shops like Sequoia and Shanti.
Another easy to use product for prevention is the “Lotion Spécial Rentrée” from the essential oil specialists “Pranarom”. Just spray behind the ears and the nape of the neck in the morning before leaving for school. It has a nice scent and gives your child some extra protection when used with the shampoo mentioned above. Pranarom also has a formula for eliminating lice once they have landed – “Spécial Rentrée Duo” – which combines the spray with a special shampoo and comes with a fine toothed comb. Pranarom products are found at most bio shops as well as pharmacies.
Wishing you a happy and healthy “back to school”!
Note: This article first appeared in the September 2010 newsletter of Sunbeams.