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Back to School Nutrition

Stop playing the blame game and get to work -- at home and at your child's school.
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It's back to school time, and for many of us, that means getting into our old routines. But not all routines need to be revisited, especially when it comes to food. Let's take the time to show our children a new way of looking at health and fitness. I take a very healthy and honest approach to exercise, eating and life. As a fitness industry professional and a veteran mom-on-the-go, let's discuss the issue of our nation's weight crisis and school food.

Kids are fat. They eat a lot of sugar and don't move their bodies. Now that I have your attention: The reality is, not all kids are fat and many consume an appropriate amount of sugar as well as participate in physical activities in and outside of school. However, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) tells us, "Obesity now affects 17 percent of all children and adolescents in the United States -- triple the rate from just one generation ago." It's frightening to think that 12.5 million kids between the ages 2 and 19 are obese. And sadly, according to the latest research, the number is only poised to grow.

This has brought on a host of health problems that are now being seen in our local hospitals throughout our country: Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, asthma and even sleep apnea. Looking back at my elementary class photos, there wasn't one kid who was overweight, and I can't recall any of them having Type 2 diabetes or any other health problem. How have we arrived at a place where the healthy, lean, active kid is in the minority?

Who's to blame? In my opinion, it is important to put it into perspective. Is it the school's fault that they don't offer P.E. anymore? Is it the government's fault that the state doesn't have any money and had to cut the school program? Is it the fault of businesses manufacturing unhealthy foods that are sold to schools and marketed to children? We can continue to point fingers, but when you do so, three fingers are pointing back at you. Are you playing a game of tag after school? Are you on a family walk after dinner? Do you limit time in front of the TV and computer? Is someone holding a gun to your head when you order a Big Mac and fries? Have you done anything to try and make your child's school a healthier place?

We simply cannot place all the blame for our children's poor eating habits and their skyrocketing weight on our policymakers, school districts or the food industry. We cannot just blame super-sized sodas and junk food commercials targeted toward kids. The fact is, we are all culpable. As parents, we are guilty when we let our kids play video games for hours on end. We are guilty when we check emails instead of playing outside with them. We are guilty for serving too many microwaved meals and allowing our kids to have treats left and right. We are guilty for not doing more to educate them about how to nourish their bodies.

We want our kids to be fit, energized, active, flexible, nourished and happy. We don't want them to be unhealthy. It is only fair that they get a strong start in life with the most important vehicle that they will ever have: their body. As a parent of three boys (16-year-old twins and a 12-year-old), this has always been very important to me. Since I have been through twelve years of elementary school, four years (so far!) of middle school and just finished with two years of high school, I feel like I have some experience when it comes to what can and can't be done.

Parental involvement can be key to change. There are things that parents can do, working along with principals, teachers and lunchroom staff to move the school in a healthier direction. You could start by talking to your child's teacher about working within the classroom. Discuss different ways to encourage parents to cut back on sugar, juice and processed snacks and bring in healthier choices like apples, grapes, baby tomatoes, edamame, hummus, carrots and jicama. Get involved with your school's wellness committee (or ask to start a committee, if there isn't one). Broach the idea of creating policies of what foods and drinks can and can't be brought in for birthday party treats, teacher appreciation days, last day of school parties and holiday parties. Suggest the notion of taking the Meatless Monday pledge. Lobby for nutrition education for the students. If you want to create a healthier environment at your child's school, then you must speak up, take initiative and get active.

It is wonderful to dream big. You can imagine the school serving up delicious, fresh fare with veggies grown on local farms. But it's also important to be realistic. Big changes don't happen overnight. You have to start small and keep your expectations in check. There's a lot of red tape, bureaucracy, legislation and countless other factors involved. It may start to feel overwhelming, like a battle you will never win. But taking one small step in the right direction is a good start -- even if it is just dropping off a crate of apples for your child's classroom to chomp on.

For the school's bigger picture, there is a national plan that has been set up by our government. The National School Lunch Act was signed by President Harry Truman in 1946. It is the plan for public and non-profit private schools to provide nutritionally balanced low-cost or free lunches to kids at school. The HHFKA has revised this act so that proper nutrition is being provided in our schools meeting today's standards. Proposed changes include lower sodium limits, specific requirements for the types of vegetables served, elimination of most trans fats and whole milk, and increased use of whole grains.

You can see where the red tape would come in but, thankfully, there are people out there who are working toward a healthier generation. However, it is overwhelming when you look at the growing numbers of childhood obesity and you have to ask the question: How is this ever going to change?!

Keep up the good habits at home! Bottom line: This is the only place that you, as a parent, can guarantee a difference. You can guarantee what is going into your child's body. I love the energy put toward changing the school lunch programs, with organic produce, food from school gardens, steamed veggies, fresh fruits, vegetarian meals and, of course, gluten-free options. But if your kid doesn't eat that way at home, what makes you think he will eat that way at school? NOT A CHANCE!

If you don't serve broccoli at home, your child isn't going to pick broccoli as his side at school. If you constantly snack on processed foods that come from a box or prepare quick meals that go from freezer to microwave, then that is the type of food that your child is going to want. How kids eat is typically a mirror of how their parents eat. In many cases, their good eating habits don't emerge until they are older.

Example: I have teenagers. I started putting broccoli on their plates the minute they could hold something in their hands. Raw, steamed, roasted -- however I was eating it myself, I gave it to them. For years, they looked at it, smelled it and even licked it. However, it wasn't until they were 8 and 9 years old that they started asking for it. Now, at 16, I have twins who steam and sauté broccoli with garlic and squeeze lemon on top. Wow!

Create a world of healthy eating at home from breakfast, brown bag lunch, dinner to all the snacking in between. As the parent who does the shopping, be sure to fill your cart with fresh wholesome food; limit the sugars and heavily processed stuff. Get in the kitchen and cook meals from scratch. Find the time for it! Spend time in the kitchen preparing meals with your kids. Make one of them "Chef of the Night" and let them choose the menu, cook and serve the food. Have food organization activities where you prep your food at the top of the week so you have healthy choices ready to go. (If you need help with this, check out my "Sunday Set-up" program).

We live in a big busy world that can make you feel that anything you say or do won't make a difference. That may be true in some cases. However, the pairs of eyes that look up to you day in and day out is learning from you and will someday be out there in the world making their own choices. If you are a good role model and make the effort (and yes, I know it can be an effort!) to provide your children with nutritious food, they (hopefully!) will learn how to make good choices.

We owe it to our own children to make healthy eating a priority at home. And we owe it to all children to make it a priority in our schools. Because for every kid whose parent is working hard to feed him nutritiously, there are undoubtedly several whose parents aren't -- because they don't know better or they feel like they just don't have enough time or energy. And those kids need our collective help if they are going to have a shot at a healthy future.

So stop playing the blame game and get to work -- at home and at your child's school. Start by resolving to make one healthy change for your family or, say, starting a dialogue with your school principal or PTA president. Together, we can have an impact. But we need to act -- and act NOW!

*I purposefully used the word "fat" instead of "overweight" because it stings and it hits home. When we try to be politically correct, I find that the emphasis can get lost. We are a nation in crisis. This is not the time to beat around the bush. Follow me on Twitter at kathykaehler.