Five ways to make smarter back-to-school food choices | Guest Column

By Danette Wickman

Special to the Reporter

It seems that just yesterday we were welcoming summer vacation, lounging at the beach by day and toasting s’mores over the campfire at dusk. In the blink of an eye, school is once again in session! For both parents and children, readjusting to the school-year schedule can be hectic, making it easy to succumb to cravings for unhealthy snacks or to skip that trip to the gym.

Although establishing a routine might be tricky at first, we tend to thank ourselves later when it becomes habit. The key to maintaining our health during this time of transition is to manage stress while balancing indulgences with smart choices.

Consider these tips for keeping your back-to-school nutrition on track:

1. Everything in moderation: Even when shuffling between piano lessons and soccer practice, encourage your family to eat five daily servings of fruits and vegetables. Eating whole, fresh foods throughout the day prevents us from getting overly hungry in between meals, and less likely to binge when we arrive home. And treats don’t need to be totally off-limits—consider sticking to one per day, like hot cocoa or frozen yogurt after dinner.

2. Say no to added sugars: According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the average American consumes 74 pounds of sugar a year! That’s 23 teaspoons of added sugar a day, or an extra 460 calories. When choosing after-school snacks for your family, avoid foods that feature added sugars near the top of the ingredient list. Find a complete list of common added sugars here.

3. Say yes to healthy fats: Contrary to popular belief, not all fats are bad! Fats help us feel satisfied while providing many health benefits, like helping our bodies to absorb vitamins, build cell membranes, and insulate the nervous system. What’s important is to choose the right kinds of fats, which can come from sources like fish, nuts, seeds and avocados. Unhealthy fats, such as trans fats, are found in many packaged foods and can increase your risk of heart disease — so it’s best to avoid those when packing lunches. And keep in mind: foods can be labeled “trans-fat free” even if they contain up to half a gram of trans fats per serving. Look for the words “hydrogenated or partially-hydrogenated” – which are other words for trans-fat – and steer clear!

4. Hit the hay: Many students shift their sleeping habits over the summer to staying up late and sleeping in, which can create a great deal of stress during the first few weeks of school as they are re-acclimated to an appropriate sleep schedule. It’s important, however, to commit to establishing a consistent sleep routine. Sleep deprivation has been shown to contribute to difficulty learning, poor concentration, and decreased problem-solving abilities. Most school-aged children (ages 5-12) should be getting about nine to 11 hours of solid sleep per night.

5. Don’t skip breakfast: Children who regularly eat a healthy breakfast are more likely to meet daily nutrient requirements; maintain a healthy body weight; have better concentration and be more alert; and even miss fewer days of school. For breakfast, look for cereals with whole grains, low amounts of sugar and at least five grams of fiber. Stick to low-fat dairy sources like milk, plain or low sugar yogurts, and cottage cheese. And of course, don’t forget the fresh fruits and vegetables!

Danette Wickman is manager of Inpatient & Outpatient Nutrition and the Diabetes Center at Kirkland-based EvergreenHealth, an integrated health care system that serves nearly one million residents in King and Snohomish counties, and offers a breadth of services and programs that is among the most comprehensive in the region. For more helpful resources, visit or