Send Kids Back to School with a Healthy Diet


By Elizabeth Yarnell

Kids are back in school full swing. So what does that mean for your childโ€™s diet? Hopefully not a strict diet of fast food five days a week as you run to football practices and dance lessons. The start of the school year can indeed be a busy time for families, but it is possible to make healthy meals even with time constraints. It just takes a little know-how.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), โ€œThe percentage of children who are overweight has more than doubled, and among adolescents the rates have more than tripled since 1980.โ€ Being overweight can be associated with diabetes and other physical and mental health issues for young people such as bone and joint problems, sleep apnea, and social and psychological problems such as stigmatization and poor self-esteem.

Whether or not we want to hear about it โ€” and most of us donโ€™t โ€” we need to start thinking about what we feed our kids.

The CDC found that 4 out of 5 teens donโ€™t get enough fruits or vegetables, over half get too much saturated fat, and most adolescents, particularly girls, donโ€™t get enough calcium in their diets.

Research is now showing that the antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals contained in fruits and vegetables may protect against everything from cancer, heart disease, and stroke to cataracts, chronic obstructive lung disease, diverticulosis, high blood pressure and a multitude of other diseases. Even chronic grown-up immunologic diseases such as multiple sclerosis and adult-onset diabetes may benefit from a varied diet rich in plant-based foods.

A diet based on whole foods rather than the packaged, processed, synthesized foods we have become dependent on, can be an effective long-term strategy to combat excess weight. Weight loss and maintenance become delightful side-effects of eating right, instead of the main and perhaps, somewhat distorted, focus. And best of all, by offering real food we are modeling great lifelong eating habits for our kids!

The major emphasis of the idea of eating for better health is on dietary patterns: what kinds of foods (processed or whole) we eat on a regular basis. This approach is extremely effective not only because it is easier to implement than calorie-counting for the individual and/or family, but also because a varied diet of whole foods provides a wide range of nutrients, vitamins and minerals for energy and health.

According to the American Institute of Cancer Research (AICR), "Every new vegetable, fruit, whole grain or bean that finds its way onto your plate contributes disease-fighting power. And all the fat and calories you save may make a real difference on your waistline."

Many of today's adults were raised on the "meat-and-potatoes" diet that included only a smattering of side-dish vegetables smothered in cheese, drenched in butter or deep-fried in lard. The idealized mother of the past built a meal for her family based around a hefty serving of meat followed by a large dose of processed starch (white rice, mashed potato flakes, packaged stuffing, etc.) with a few overcooked vegetables on the side, often smuggled away in napkins or under the table to the helpful family dog. It was cool eat food that came out of a box rather than from a farm, and to not like eating vegetables.

The time has truly come for us to change our ways and return to eating a diet based in whole, unprocessed foods. That means feeding our kids real fruits and vegetables, meats, whole grains, and legumes instead of fruit chews, lunch meats, processed cheeses and white breads.

Even a subtle change in diet can positively impact health and weight for the whole family. Knowledge is the key to making healthy food choices, and understanding that eating healthily is a lifelong opportunity may empower all of us to begin choosing healthy options of whole foods more often.

Hereโ€™s an easy recipe that uses whole foods in a cast iron Dutch oven to create a kid-pleasing meal that is both nutritious and delicious. Real cheese, whole wheat pasta, and a variety of vegetables make this meal a healthy and tasty choice for dinner.

Use any combination of cheeses you desire, or even a cheese substitute (soy or rice cheese), to make this a mac-and-cheese you can feel good about serving.

Glorious Macaroni & Cheese
Serves 4

4 cups macaroni-shaped whole grain pasta
1 1/3 cup water or liquid from canned tomatoes (see below)
6-10 drops olive oil
16-24 oz. cheese, sliced or grated
4 carrots, sliced
2 Tbsp. oregano, fresh chopped, or 1 tsp. dried
salt and pepper to taste
1 cup broccoli florets, halved
1-2 cups spinach, roughly chopped
4-6 tomatoes, chopped, or 2 14 oz. cans, drained

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Spray inside of 3 1/2 or 4-quart cast iron Dutch oven and lid with olive oil, taking care to fully coat all interior surfaces.

Place dry noodles in pot. If using canned tomatoes, drain and reserve the liquid and use to make the 1 1/3 cup of liquid, adding water as needed. If using fresh tomatoes, use all water. Add olive oil to liquid, stir and pour over pasta. Mix gently and spread pasta evenly across bottom of pot.

Place a layer of cheese over pasta. Add carrots. Sprinkle with half of the garlic and half of the oregano. Lightly salt and pepper.

Layer in broccoli and cover with a blanket of cheese. Sprinkle rest of spices and lightly salt and pepper. Top with spinach and fresh or drained canned tomatoes.

Cover and bake for 30-35 minutes, or about 3 minutes after the aroma of a fully cooked meal escapes the oven.

Overcooking this recipe may cause the noodles to clump and a crusty layer to form along the bottom and lower sides of the pot. While these tasty strips are fun to crunch, you can avoid this effect by paying careful attention to when the aroma first escapes the oven and announces that the meal is ready.

About the author: Elizabeth Yarnell is a Certified Nutritional Consultant and the author of Glorious One-Pot Meals: A new quick & healthy approach to Dutch oven cooking, a guide to a guide to preparing quick, healthy and balanced one-pot meals. As a mother of young children, a diet of whole foods is an important strategy in her battle with Multiple Sclerosis. Visit Elizabeth online at to subscribe to her free newsletter. The Glorious One-Pot Meal cooking method is unique and holds US patent 6,846,504.

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