I loved summertime growing up. It was complete randomness and non-routine which meant freedom, fun and play. We dreaded the first week of school because it all came to a screeching halt when we needed to follow the back-to-school schedule. Now, as a parent the past 20 years, I have a better appreciation for the back-to-school routine and I actually encourage others to embrace the schedule, too. My wife and I use several strategies to ease the transition from the fun-filled, unscheduled summer routine to the scheduled back-to-school routine and found there are additional bonuses that make life easier and healthier for our family. Remember, it all starts with the three pillars of optimal health: sleep, nourishment, and physical activity.
Gradual Transition: Kids enjoy the freedom of summer, but they also thrive during the academic year when they follow a schedule, you just need to ease them into school mode slowly. One helpful strategy we begin the week before school starts involves scheduling bedtime, wake-up, a family meal and physical activity at the same time each day. Here are a few more specific ideas to facilitate the back-to-school transition:
- Sleep is In: As a kid, you’re expected to have scattered sleep patterns during the summer because of staying up and sleeping late or napping during the day. This is normal and part of being a kid and it’s important they are allowed to have sleepovers, watch movies, play video games, and simply enjoy hanging out with family and friends. However, getting enough sleep and high-quality sleep should be a priority as you gear up for the start of the school year. A week before school starts, encourage 8-11 hours of sleep for kids 7-18 years old. To help accomplish this, focus on a consistent wake up time (similar to the start of the school day) instead of fighting with them to go to bed at night. Schedule a fun activity each morning, such as a family hike, trip to the beach, golfing, or any fun family activity to help get them out of bed. Simply getting kids up a little earlier in the morning on a consistent basis will naturally get them to bed earlier so you avoid the aggravation and hassle of the bedtime routine.
- Protein Rules the Roost: There’s no controversy that breakfast is still the most important meal of the day, but only if it contains enough high-quality protein (20-25 grams). The benefits of a protein-driven start to the day include healthy lean muscle mass, increased metabolism, stabilization of blood sugar, quenching of hunger and increased energy. Chances are the added protein may also improve academic, work and physical performance for both kids and adults. Here are some breakfast ideas:
Oatmeal with nut/seeds, nut/seed butters, or a scoop of whey protein (20-25 grams)
6-8 ounces of Greek yogurt
½ cup cottage cheese
2-3 Eggs (1 whole egg, 3 egg whites)
3 ounces of lean meat
Fruit smoothie with scoop of whey protein (20-25 grams) or greek yogurt
Peanut Butter & Banana French toast
- Move: Common sense and research tells us it’s healthy to start the day with some heart, blood, and muscle pumping physical activity. Unfortunately, few kids walk or bike to school nowadays, most ride a bus or get dropped off at the entrance of the school. So it comes as no surprise that as a nation, we recently received a nearly failing grade for physical activity among children and youth (see recent Washington Post article http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/to-your-health/wp/2014/04/29/a-report-card-you-couldnt-bring-home/). This is so sad is because it’s well-known that being physically active helps kids stay focused and attentive leading to improved behavior and academic performance. In an ideal world, kids should arrive at the bus stop 20-30 minutes early and run around and play like we used too. But safety concerns and the fact that many kids prefer to remain sedentary may make this impossible. Sadly, there are also plenty of parents who barely drag themselves out the door in the morning. Of course, this problem could be solved if physical education and recess were available on a daily basis in our schools but both are being drastically limited and cut from the normal school day. So, my quick solution is to encourage shorter bursts of 5-10 minutes at a time whenever possible. Break out a soccer ball, a football, frisbee, some chalk for hopscotch or four-square while waiting for the bus – any physical movement is better than no movement, especially for our youth. As last resorts, put them to work and have them walk the dog, shovel the driveway, vacuum, or do the laundry J. Another positive side effect of starting the day with physical activity is giving people extra motivation to make better food choices throughout the day, making it a great “two-for”. Current society makes it hard to remain active during the day, so everyone should make it a priority to stand and walk as much as possible, whether at school, work, home or on the road traveling. Include the same physical activity ideas when kids return home from school, let them run around and burn off some steam before they do their homework or plant themselves in front of the TV or video game. A body in motion stays in motion but a body at rest stays at rest, so keep them moving!
- On-the-go-Snacks: It’s so much easier to throw some money to the kids to buy lunch or to pack pre-made packaged snacks. However, taking the time to pack healthy lunches and snacks, including after-school on-the-go-snacks provides optimal nourishment and may make the late afternoon slump and dinnertime madness more manageable. Let’s be honest, many people struggle with the 4-6 pm time period because we are tired and often stressed from a day at work or school and this leaves us vulnerable to overindulging or eating unhealthy foods loaded with sugar, fat and salt. To avoid these urges, have healthy options readily available in the car and at home so you won’t be tempted. Prepare fresh-cut veggies, fruit, nuts, eggs, Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, hummus, fruit smoothies, protein bars, and other protein-rich foods the night before so you have them on hand. Occasionally I consult with parents who state their children won’t eat fruits, vegetables and other healthy snacks despite offering these foods to the children 2-3 times. In reality, it often takes a dozen or more times to offer these foods to children before they finally give in and adopt the food, it’s called the “Dozen Rule” of healthy eating. The bottom line is, don’t give up offering healthy foods to your children if they resist it 2, 3 or even 7 times, it may take a dozen tries!
- Family Time: I come from a family of 7 children and my mom and dad always shared the cooking in our family and sometimes the kids would help. We often joke about my mom’s cooking but the truth was she made all of our meals from scratch, we never ate a meal out of a box or bag, I’m so grateful for this. Trust me, it wasn’t good eats all the time. For example, when the 7 of us were spread out in elementary through high school we used the sandwich “assembly-line technique” every Sunday night. This involved each kid at a station preparing the sandwiches for the week. My oldest sister laid out the bread; my oldest brother placed a slice of meat; another brother added a piece of lettuce; another brother added a slice of tomato; I added a slather of mustard or mayonnaise; my younger sister put the second piece of bread on top; and my youngest brother placed the sandwiches in small bags and then Mom would place the individual sandwiches in a larger bag she placed in the freezer. We were literally a sandwich factory. In theory, this looked and sounded great and the sandwiches tasted fine until about Wednesday but by Thursday and Friday they were completely freezer-burned and inedible which meant we usually went hungry and without a substantial lunch on those days. I think this is what kept all of us so lean. All kidding aside, my fondest childhood memories are gardening with my mom, and shopping, preparing, cooking and eating meals with my family. I believe one of the most meaningful and fulfilling aspects of being part of a family is sharing a meal together, including the shopping, preparing, cooking, eating and cleaning up! Family meals bring the family nucleus together and provide an ideal opportunity for each member of the family to share their day and socialize with each other. The family meal-time ritual is a great way to start and stay on the back-to-school schedule and will provide lifelong memories for your children.