Last Wednesday, First Lady Michelle Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack unveiled a new era of cafeteria food with a set of USDA nutrition guidelines for public schools.The rules put the clampdown on fat and sodium and called for more fruits and veggies.
But parents shouldn’t rejoice just yet: A whole lotta junk could still be making its way onto your kid’s plate, from carb-heavy pizza to French fries and potatoes.
And rising food prices aren’t making things easier.
To that end, Your Money tapped nutritionists Keri Gans and Rania Batayneh of Essential Nutrition for You, to get the skinny on how to help your kids eat healthfully without blowing the grocery budget.
More consumers are taking advantage of farmer's markets, so why shouldn't you?
Many provide supplemental nutritional assistance coupons to low-income households (food stamps) and some double the values of coupons purchased at their markets.
Gans suggests buying fruit in season and pairing locally-sourced veggies with yummy dips like peanut butter, Greek yogurt and hummus for snacks.
If there isn't a farmer's market in town, you can just as easily find what you need in the grocery store.
Shop for beans, chicken, eggs, brown rice and canned veggies (rinse these under water to reduce sodium). Your choices of fruit may be limited, but you can almost always find bananas, says Gans.
Depending on your climate and where you live, you might grow your own garden.
Tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant and lettuce are all easy veggies to grow in your backyard, says Gans.
Understanding where food comes from will help children learn to appreciate a healthy meal, Batayneh says. 'When they see food being prepared from scratch, long-term that goes a long way.'
It's also a way to have ready-made food at home, where you don't have to worry about pesticides or cost.
Parents often make the mistake of thinking they don't want to give their kids frozen foods.
But don't write them off just yet, says Batayneh.
Frozen fruits taste great blended up as a smoothie, and veggies, which work well in stir-fry dishes, are often priced cheaper than they are at the market.
Both nutritionists encourage parents to get their kids involved with preparing meals as much they can.
'Make pizzas at home instead of ordering them from the local pizzeria,' says Batayneh. 'It's fun for kids and you can put smiley faces on it.'
If you're a mum who loves baking on the weekends, let your kids help mix the ingredients. Gans suggests buying cookie cutters and having your kids make fun shapes for sandwiches.
Healthy substitutions will make the lifestyle change so much easier, says Batayneh.
If you love to bake, sub in shredded zucchini and whole grains for muffins, or let a wheat crust stand in for the starchy white stuff in a pizza.
You can also try adding veggies to any pasta dish for a quickie health boost. Batayneh's pick: cauliflower in mac and cheese.
'There's a lot of healthy packaged food out there,' says Batayneh, who's a big fan of Veggie Patch's meatless meals and snacks.
'That kind of food is appealling to parents because the kid's definitely going to eat it, plus it's fun and healthy.'
Look for low sodium, low carbs and a sizeable portion of veggies.
Kids like being rewarded and many parents find just talking to their kids (ages 8 and up) can have a strong impact on their eating choices.
'Allowing them to have a treat can be healthy,' says Batayneh, who says making a pact with a child can be very effective.
'Tell them why they should be eating well and that if they eat well all day, then they can have the treat,' she says. 'If they cave in, they can have it tomorrow.'
Get your kids to play the name the dish game so even the most off-putting meals--brussell sprouts, uck!--take on some appeal.
Batayneh says she's had great success getting parents to serve their children a plate of 'Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs,' or what we adults call spaghetti and meatballs.
'Family time is so important, and if there isn't an a-ha moment, or turning point, the unhealthiness can continue generation after generation,' Batayneh warns.
Try letting your kids tag along at the grocery store and teach them to pick out healthy foods to add to the cart.
'Encourage them to eat foods that are colourful,' says Batayneh. 'Packaged foods tend to be very bland and beige, neutral colours.'
Adds Gans: 'Let them choose the veggie for the night, based on what colours they like.'
Small changes are key, say both experts.
'Keep in mind that the whole family might not be thrilled at the beginning, but they should remember that they are the role models. Adopt the mindset that this is an adventure, not a disaster,' and it'll be a whole lot easier, says Gans.
'It just takes planning and communication,' Batayneh adds. 'Even once a month, make a new recipe and try it out. Or think about sitting down and creating a menu. It's not difficult, it just takes planning, communication and being organised.'