Healthy Eating and Exercise Strategies to Optimize Your Student’s Learning Potential

Diet and exercise can be just as important to your student's success as study habits and attention in school. We discuss some of the most important eating and exercise strategies to maximize your student's daily learning. 

By Lynell Ross, Certified Health and Wellness Coach

Back to school means breaking free from some bad health habits that kids develop over the summer, such as staying up late, missing meals and eating junk food. Research shows that healthy kids learn better and families who share meals increase their student’s chances of success in school. 


It is very powerful when parents and teachers team up to present a united front on nutrition and exercise to children. Teachers and faculty can invite organizations such as the Dairy Council and the Health Education council to present to kids in the classroom or at an assembly. Children often are excited to bring home literature, recipe guides and share what they learned at school about food. Parents can reinforce healthy choices by teaching children to avoid sugary sodas and opt for milk, to stay hydrated with water and to drink appropriate portions of real fruit juice. Teachers can remind parents to send healthy lunches and snacks for meal times at school. 


Teachers can play a valuable part in promoting healthy behaviors: 

  • Teachers have a great opportunity to make an impression on their students by integrating nutrition into subjects and reminding them that healthy eating is important. 

  • Ask parents to contribute healthy alternatives to birthday and other classroom celebrations. Rather than cupcakes, ask them to bring fruit and veggie platters with healthy cottage cheese or hummus dips, whole grain crackers, and non-fat yogurt. 

  • Model Healthy Behavior. Students look up to their teachers, and watch what they do. Teachers have a powerful influence on student habits, and can make a big impression by eating healthy snacks such as train mix, granola, fruits and veggies. 

  • Provide plenty of water for students. Allow students to visit water fountains or carry water bottles into class. Staying hydrated can improve concentration and brain function. 

  • Instead of offering candy as classroom rewards, try tokens for free time, or inexpensive stickers, markers or simple toys. Ask parents to contribute prizes. 

  • Encourage healthy lunches by talk about lunch time and reviewing the school lunch menu, teaching about the food groups and encouraging them to bring nutritious foods in their own lunch box. 

  • Some schools plant gardens allowing the children to participate in growing their own food for the classroom. 

 

Encourage Exercise and Activity Throughout the Day

Here are some other ways to help promote healthy behaviors in students:

  • Begin the day with movement. Begin the morning with breathing and yoga stretches to help focus kid’s attention and teach them new movements. 

  • Encourage the kids to take a standing break. After a long time of sitting, ask the kids to stand, stretch or jog in place. According to the University of California at Davis, Cooperative Extension, moving and standing significantly increases blood flow to the brain. When students get a chance to reboot and refresh, they are less likely to act out and learn more easily. Aim for 1-5-minute breaks at least 2-3 times per day. 

  • Make a physical activity chart. This encourages kids to keep track of the number of minutes of physical activity they participate in each day. Tally the numbers at the end of the week. 

  • On rainy days, play indoor exercise games. Write down the names of exercises such as jogging in place, toe touches, jumping jacks and reaches and put them on small pieces of paper. Have kids draw the papers from a hat and participate in the exercise at recess. 

  • Create a Class Goal. Start a walking or other exercise program where kids can keep track of the number of minutes or miles they walk. They can walk at recess, at PE or at home. This will encourage participation by the whole family. Everyday they can record their miles from the day before. Make unique rewards if the class reaches their goal such as a field trip or outside celebration with games and healthy snacks. Ask parents to participate. 

  • Play music and teach dance when appropriate. 

Healthy Breakfast, Lunch & Snack Ideas for Parents 

During the hectic morning rush your children may tell you that they are not hungry, but don’t let them skip breakfast.  Explain that eating a healthy breakfast rich in complex carbohydrates, which are a primary fuel source for the brain, is the most important thing your kids can do to help themselves get better grades.  Complex carbohydrates are whole grains, not white flour and white sugar products like pastries and donuts. People must have complex carbohydrates in their breakfasts such as whole grain toast, oatmeal and brown rice pudding for good brain function.  

Set a good example for your children by packing a healthy lunch box with foods from each of the food groups: whole grains, protein, vegetable, fruit and dairy. 

It only takes a couple of minutes to serve your family a bowl of “One-Minute” quick cooking oatmeal topped with chopped apples, raisins and milk.  Cold cereal can be a good breakfast if carefully chosen.  Enriched cereals are those in which any nutrients destroyed during processing may have been replaced.  Fortified cereals are those to which nutrients such as vitamin D have been added.  Choose whole grain cereals such as wheat and oats with at least 3 grams of fiber. Top with sliced bananas, strawberries or blueberries for a burst of anti-oxidants.  

To help with the rush in the morning, here are some ideas to help you send your family off with a nutritious start: 

  • Prepare breakfast the night before to save time in the morning 

  • Give them a breakfast in a bag they can eat on the run 

  • Send them off with a good snack to eat at mid-morning break

  • Prepare cut up fruits and veggies the night before for quick lunch packing

 

Oven Baked French Toast

Prepare the night before and pop it in the oven when you when you get up.   

  • Multi-grain bread 

  • 6 eggs

  • 1.5 cups milk

  • 2 tablespoons sugar

  • 1 teaspoon vanilla

  • One-eighth teaspoon salt 

  • Ground cinnamon to taste 

  • Powdered sugar 

  • 3 cups chopped apples 

  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice 

Spray a 9 x 13 baking pan with cooking spray.  Cut bread into half slices and arrange in pan to fit.  In another bowl beat eggs, whisk in milk, 1 tablespoon of sugar, vanilla and salt.  Pour over bread.  Cover and refrigerate overnight. Sauté chopped apples in a skillet with a tablespoon of Smart Balance or Earth Balance spread, (these do not have hydrogenated oil.) or use butter. Toss with apples lemon juice to avoid turning brown and refrigerate until morning.
   
In the morning preheat the oven to 400 as soon as you get up.  Sprinkle bread with cinnamon and bake uncovered 30 minutes or until golden brown.  Warm chopped apples in microwave for a minute and serve over warm French toast. 


Sweet & Spicy Pumpkin Seed Snack 

  • 1 cup pumpkin seeds 

  • 5 tablespoons sugar

  • ¼ teaspoon salt 

  • ¼ teaspoon ground cumin

  • ¼ teaspoon cinnamon

  • ¼ teaspoon ginger

  • ¼ tablespoon vegetable oil 

Heat oven to 250 degrees.  Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.  Spread washed pumpkin seeds on parchment in an even layer and bake until dry about one hour, stirring occasionally.  Let cool. 

In a medium bowl combine 3 tablespoons sugar, salt, cumin, cinnamon and ginger.  Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium high heat.  Add pumpkin seeds and 2 tablespoons sugar.  Cook until sugar melts and the pumpkin seeds begin to caramelize, about one minute. Transfer to bowl with spices and stir well to coat.  Let cool. 

Super Snack Mix 

  • 1 cup roasted cashews

  • 1 cup peanuts 

  • One half-cup raisins

  • One half cup roasted pumpkin seeds

  • One-quarter cup chocolate chips 

  • 2 tablespoons dried shredded coconut

Mix all ingredients and put in snack size plastic bags for a delicious mid-morning or afternoon snack. 

Whole Wheat Pumpkin Muffins 


Spread with light cream cheese for an on the go breakfast 

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour 

  • ¾ cup whole-wheat flour 

  • 3 tablespoons sugar

  • 2 teaspoons baking powder

  • 1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice

  • ¼ teaspoon baking soda

  • 1/8 teaspoon salt

  • 1 beaten egg

  • Three fourths cup skim milk 

  • 2 tablespoons earth balance or smart balance buttery spread, melted

  • ½ cup canned pumpkin

Spray muffin pan with nonstick spray. In a large mixing bowl stir together the all-purpose flour, whole wheat flour, sugar, baking powder, pumpkin pie spice, baking soda and salt.  Make a well in the center.  In a small mixing bowl stir together egg, milk and margarine.  Stir in the pumpkin.  Add egg mixture all at once to dry mixture.  Using a fork, stir just till moistened; batter should be lumpy. 

Spoon batter into prepared muffin cups, filling two thirds full.  Bake in a 375-degree oven for 18 to 20 minutes.  As you serve them, spread with cream cheese for a yummy frosting. 

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