Can a Starch-Smart® diet improve school performance?
As parents, we want to ensure that our children are performing up to their potential. Making sure they eat a nutrient-rich diet packed full of fruits and vegetables is one way to improve our children's IQ scores as well as improve their attention spans. A study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health followed nearly 4000 children from birth through age eight. The study determined that children who as toddlers had eaten a diet of processed foods scored lower on an IQ test than their counterparts who had consumed a naturally brain-building diet full of fruits and vegetables. Another study showed reduced attention spans in teenagers who had developed metabolic syndrome, a condition that starts with a nutrient-poor, processed-food diet.
But what if the kids turn up their noses at the fruits and veggies we serve? There's hope! Over time--and with some parent wisdom--we can help our children learn to enjoy the food that will make them smarter and happier. Each child is different, but one of the following suggestions or a combination of a few of them may be just what you need to grow your child into a Starch-Smart® scholar.
1. Set the example
Children learn by watching you. The single most important predictor for a child growing into a healthy eater is the parent's eating habits. As you choose to eat more fruit and vegetables, your child will begin to eat more fruit and vegetables.
2. Education begins at home
Before children ever arrive in a classroom, they can learn about nutrition. Even very young children can understand the idea that good food helps the body be strong and vibrant. If you relate the food they’re eating to the things they like to do--monkey bars, swings, running around, climbing trees, dancing, and just being happy--they will start to understand the connection. Explain in simple terms that you, as a parent, want to give them foods that allow them to do the things that they enjoy.
The concept is the same for tweens and teens. Explain to them how healthy eating will improve their lives. Better yet, have them click through these links to see how fruits and vegetables can affect their scholastic performance, improve their appearance, lessen their acne, and give them more energy for sports and extracurricular activities.
3. Hands-on helpers are healthy eaters
Bring your children into the process of how food gets to their table. Help them plant a garden and grow some of their own food. Take them to the grocery store and let them see what's offered. Talk to them about both the healthy and the unhealthy foods they see and about the consequences of eating these foods. Let your kids choose some of the healthy foods they'd like to bring home for the family.
Once home, let your kids help with food preparation. Washing fruit, chopping vegetables, making a salad, or arranging a plate of "crunchies" (raw fruits or vegetables) to serve at dinnertime are all great ways for kids to get hands-on experience with healthy cooking. In fact, those jobs may become part of a child's daily chores or a way for them to earn some of their allowance.
4. Eating healthy is fun
Everyone is familiar with the fun and nostalgia of baking cookies. But why should an unhealthy food full of fat and sugar get all the glory? Let's make healthy food fun!
Fun shapes: Use a cookie cutter on the veggies! Research shows that children clearly prefer their vegetables cut into interesting shapes like hearts or stars. Borrow some of that cookie-making appeal by letting the children help choose the shapes and cutting the vegetables together. Sliced jicama or the side of a red pepper work for larger shapes, while smaller cookie cutters are needed for vegetables like cucumber slices.
Fun Names: Try making a "mermaid smoothie" or a "super ninja pea soup." Studies demonstrate that vegetables can gain lasting appeal with good marketing. Try calling them "X-ray vision carrots" or "silly dilly green beans" and watch how the interest level changes from ho-hum to hooray!
Fun Containers: Just changing the way a food is presented can increase its appeal. Delight young children with healthy finger foods served in a muffin tin or ice cube tray. Filing each little cup with a different healthy ingredient allows your child to see the variety things they can eat and to get practice choosing good-for-them foods. Try raisins, berries, carrots, celery, apple slices, or even cooked and cooled whole-grain penne pasta.
Fun Activities: Who doesn't like a good dip? Plus, dipping food is fun! Peanut butter, oil-free hummus, and dressings made without oil are all great for dunking naturally healthy foods like celery, broccoli, apples, or carrots.
Fun Foods: Some foods are synonymous with fun. Pizza, submarine sandwiches, and build-your-own-style meals fall into this category. If you buy or make whole-grain pizza crusts, you can let your family build their own pizzas topped with healthy ingredients you provide. Or try turning your kitchen into a submarine sandwich shop and let each family member make a sub to their liking. Serving brain-building fruits and vegetables in the form of a potato bar, a burrito bar, or a salad bar may perk up the interest of even the pickiest eater in your family.
5. Color me smart
Foods that promote good brain function come in lots of fabulous colors. Use that to your advantage as you help your little ones learn to appreciate fruit and vegetables. One idea is a single-colored meal. For example, suggest a "red lunch" and then let the children find as many red fruits or vegetables as they can to eat at that meal. Or, teach your children the benefit of "eating a rainbow" every day. Click here for a lot of great ideas on promoting colorful eating. Remember that the appeal of color doesn't stop with the little ones. When making your dinner plans, think about ways to get a variety of colors on the plate. Not only will your meal be healthier, but it will be more appealing, too.
6. The power of peers
Food easily lends itself to social events, so use the power of positive peer pressure to build good eating habits into your scholars. Explore healthy eating by getting together with other families for fruit-and-veggie-rich meals. Or throw a party with each child bringing a different ingredient for a vegetable soup, a different veggie to dip in oil-free hummus, a different salad ingredient, or a different fruit for a smoothie. As children interact with others who have different tastes, they can learn to appreciate new foods. But since a party every day isn't practical, click here to see videos that encourage young children to develop good eating habits by copying other youngsters enjoying foods that build healthy bodies and brains.
7. Backdoor success
You may be able to make improvements to your child's diet without your child ever noticing the change. For example, substitute whole grain pasta for some of the refined, white pasta your child prefers. Try using half and half the first time, then slowly increasing the proportions as your child's tastes become accustomed to the more complex flavors of whole grains. If the taste of whole wheat pasta is objectionable, look for pastas made from quinoa, corn, rice, or even black beans or chick peas. Sauces and smoothies are another way to start adding healthier items to foods that are already tolerated. Vegetables can be blended into a tomato-based sauce and then used on pasta or in lasagna. Good things like greens, flax, or chia seeds can often be blended into a smoothie where the creamy texture and sweet fruit flavors make them more palatable. You may have to experiment to make sure that that flavor, color, or texture of the sauce or smoothie aren't affected in such a way as to cause it to be rejected. As with the switch to whole grain pasta, start with small amounts of the less preferred foods and increase the proportions over time.
8. Reasonable substitutes
While it's always preferable to start healthy eating habits as early in life as possible, there are advantages to making the switch with older children. As they learn about the benefits to better eating, older kids will be motivated to experiment with new foods. But, many will balk at giving up old, unhealthy favorites. Here's where the concept of reasonable substitutes comes in. Logic says, "Clearly nothing will taste exactly like my favorite hamburger, but I know that my favorite burger isn't good for me. So, let me try to find something that is much, much better for me that I can enjoy almost as much." Finding plant-based versions of favorite-but-unhealthy foods may start with some of the faux-meat substitutes available in the frozen section of the grocery store. These veggie burgers and other items may serve as good transitional tools, but don't plan to make these factory foods a permanent part of your child's diet. They usually contain highly processed ingredients, refined oils, and too much salt. However, they may be useful while making a break with animal-based foods, allowing children to become accustomed to new flavors and textures. As that change occurs, begin experimenting with homemade versions of these foods that use whole, natural ingredients. This recipe for Zucchini Bean Burgers was created by one of our Starch-Smart® members. Give it a try, and then leave us feedback on how it worked for you.
9. If at first you don't succeed . . .
Many times parents give up when a child rejects a new food after the first try. Yet it often takes multiple tries for a child to get used to a new taste or texture. So, don't give up! Offer a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, rotating them regularly and introducing a new one periodically. One day, your child may surprise you with a request for seconds of a food that was previously on the "I-don't-like-it" list. Sometimes you can speed up the process of accepting a new food by changing the way it is presented. For example, your child may not like raw broccoli, but if you serve it steamed, or in a soup, or with an oil-free dip or sauce, your child may be more willing to eat it. The moral of the story is to be patient while tastes change and experiment in the meantime. "No" today probably isn't "no" forever. Click here for more tips on handling the picky eater.
Is it worth the effort to teach my child to eat Starch-Smart®?
Getting our children to eat more brain-empowering fruits and vegetables may take some work on the part of parents. The good news is that all the effort is worth it. Fruits and veggies won't guarantee that your student comes home with straight A's, but fruits and veggies do help all children be the best they can be.
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