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Back-to-school season is stressful enough—for parents and students alike. The sudden change in schedule can take its toll on everyone’s eating habits. Sarasota dietitian Rebecca Henson encourages parents to keep it simple and keep their kids involved in meal-planning. That way, everyone stays happy, healthy and engaged with their food. 

“Parents tend to overcomplicate,” she says, which can result in healthy meals that kids don’t want to eat. Nutrition isn’t nutritional if it stays on the plate. “Ask them what they want and—within reason—provide them with what they ask for,” she says. “You can have healthy things that kids still love.” And don’t worry about repetition if they want the same thing every day. As long as it’s relatively healthy, celebrate that they’re enjoying their food.

Henson outlines a simple plan for a nutritious packed lunches, which should include a fruit, a starch, a vegetable and a protein. 

Starches: Whole-grain crackers, bread or tortilla.

Vegetables: Carrots, celery or salad.

Proteins: Lunch meat, peanut butter (or almond butter if the school doesn’t allow peanuts), beans or hummus.

For breakfast, think frozen whole-grain waffles with fresh fruit, scrambled eggs in a tortilla wrap or overnight oats (see Henson’s recipe below). Quick-and-easy grab-and-go options get kids out the door with a meal in their hands. Kashi bars and single-serving nut-butter packets work for breakfast as well as afternoon snacks.

Weeknight dinners can be family affairs, too. “Taco Tuesdays” and build-your-own-pizza nights allow everyone to put together their own dish. Frozen ingredients like chicken, vegetables, and even steam-in-a-bag brown rice are just as healthy as the non-frozen options—and often cheaper. Henson also recommends Lundberg rice products—available at Publix—for healthy, flavorful, and easy-to-prepare options. 

In addition to eating simple well-rounded meals, Henson wants parents to give their children nutritional education and a chance to participate in their own diet—whether letting kids choose between nutritional options or inviting them into the kitchen (and the grocery store) so they can take part in preparing meals.

“As soon as your child can understand nutrition, educate them,” Henson says. “Children can understand sooner than you think.” 

Most of all, don’t make meals more stressful than they have to be. “Don’t worry if sometimes you have to give in [to unhealthy requests],” Henson says. “They’ll be OK. You have to stay sane.”

Rebecca Henson’s Chocolate Peanut Butter Overnight Oats

2/3 cup rolled oats
2 Tbsp peanut butter 
2 Tbsp cacao powder
Milk of choice
1 tsp maple syrup

Henson’s instructions: “Mix all ingredients together adding milk until you reach desired consistency (it will thicken a bit overnight). I use a two-cup mason jar and it ends up about 75 percent or 85 percent full. You can heat this up in the morning if you prefer the texture of regular oatmeal. Enjoy within five days.” 

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