Traditional recipes

The Benefits of Quality Mealtime for Children

The Benefits of Quality Mealtime for Children

When it comes to childhood, every moment of the day is an opportunity for learning. This holds true for snack and mealtime as well.

Kids interact with food multiple times a day. Without even realizing it, they are exposed to math, science, and reading almost every time they eat or open the pantry — measurements and parts of a whole, patterns in a cereal bowl, rainbows of colors in tri-color pasta or salad, simple counting, or reading from the boxes in the grocery aisle.

Breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snack times are all unique opportunities not only to introduce our children to making healthy choices, but also to learn different academic concepts through this everyday experience of food.

As moms and co-founders of Bitsy’s Brainfood, we are always looking for smart ways to keep our own kids engaged and having fun. So we thought we’d share some real "food for thought" with some quick ideas and recipes on how you can teach with food and make meals count in more ways than one!

Use these fun tips at snack at mealtime to keep your family engaged and mentally active at the table. Who says we can’t play and learn with our food?

Simple Tips, Ideas, and Recipes:

1. Look for shapes and make them, too! Try cutting food in different shapes, or even making geometric shapes by connecting foods such as cut fruit or cheese cubes with toothpicks. Have a shape scavenger hunt in the kitchen. Ask your kids to find foods in the shape of ovals, squares, rectangles, triangles, or circles. Teach your kids to differentiate between 2-D and 3-D. A tomato is a sphere. A pepperoni is a circle.

2. Use measuring cups to teach parts of a whole and fractions.

3. Try adding and subtracting with food. I just ate one slice of apple, how many do I have left? If we each eat 1/8 of this pizza, how many pieces will be left? Always be thinking of ways to engage your kids in the moment!

4. Letter Scavenger Hunt with Bitsy’s Brainfood. Eat smart and be smart with letters from our Alphabet SmartCookies. Take out an alphabet-shaped cookie and look around the room — how many objects can each child spy that begin with their letter? How many words can they spell? Brainy bonus, these SmartCookies are an excellent source of omega-3, vitamins A, B, D, and folic acid, and each box has a half serving of fruits and vegetables, plus a wacky super food sticker inside.

5. Learn about patterns with your little ones at snack time! Start a pattern on your child’s plate and provide extra room for them to continue. You can do this activity with so many different healthy snacks. Try it with different fruits and vegetables. Or use sunflower seeds, raisins, and dried fruit. Begin with a few different combos, like strawberries, blueberries, and grapes.

6. Learn to count with money and make it a "snack sale"! Round up your spare change, give a few coins to each child, and "charge" them for their healthy snacks. (We love carrots, blueberries, string cheese, and bowls with little price tags attached.) They’ll learn to count money, and you’ll be one step closer to selling your kids on the idea of smart snacking!

Get Cooking and Thinking with this Brainfoodie Recipe:

Click here to see the Fantastic Fractions Pizza Recipe

New Jersey Department of Education

Nutritious meals and snacks are essential for young children's optimal growth and development. The energy provided by healthy foods ensures that children will be ready to fully participate in the day's learning opportunities. During meals and snacks preschoolers learn how to make nutritious choices, discover a wide variety of different foods and develop healthy eating habits.

Ensuring that each child's daily nutritional needs are met requires that food servings during every meal and snack adhere to all components of the USDA Meal Guidelines for Children Ages 1-12. Programs should supplement any lunches and snacks brought from home, providing additional foods as necessary to make up for any missing USDA Meal Guidelines component. Milk should be a component of each meal. Programs should ask for a physician's note if a family requests that no milk or a milk-based substitute be given to their child.

Programs should be diligent in maintaining a healthy, safe environment for food preparation and eating areas. Staff and children's hand-washing requires constant attention. Proper washing and disinfecting procedures should be followed for cleaning tables used for eating, food preparation surfaces and food equipment before and after food use. The recommended procedure for cleaning eating surfaces involves washing tables with a soapy solution, then disinfecting with a bleach/water solution. Follow the manufacturer's instructions for diluting the household bleach. Tables should be dried with disposable paper towels. Staff should always wash their hands after wiping tables and before serving food. Child hand-washing before meals consists of washing hands with soap and water, drying hands with a paper towel and going directly to a table.

Families' dietary restrictions due to religious beliefs, personal beliefs, cultural customs and health issues should be respected by the program. Information regarding food allergies should be documented in writing for each affected child and be readily available to all staff involved with the children's meals and snacks. This includes kitchen personnel and substitute instructional staff.

Meal and snack times are also prime opportunities for extending high-quality teaching practices and child learning outcomes across the curriculum. Teacher modeling, facilitating and thoughtful planning will lead to an atmosphere that encourages children to:

  • Practice emerging independence by using child-sized containers and utensils, allowing preschoolers to set tables, pour beverages, serve themselves and clear their places.
  • Interact in a pleasant social atmosphere as they participate with peers and adults in decision-making, sharing, communication with others and practicing good manners during family-style mealtime settings.
  • Learn healthy habits such as hand-washing and tooth-brushing.
  • Experience an inclusive classroom setting where accommodations for preschool children with disabilities allows everyone to participate together during meals.
  • Develop mathematical understanding by counting, sorting, patterning and practicing one-to-one correspondence facilitated by adults who capitalize on teachable moments during meals and snacks.
  • Experience the richness of all cultures through diversity in food and food customs.
  • Explore the science of food preparation.
  • Enhance literacy development by using new vocabulary and facilitating conversational turn-taking.

Many of these important teaching practices and learning outcomes can only occur in family-style meal settings. Whenever possible, preschoolers should eat their meals in the classroom. Large cafeteria often provided table and seating heights and arrangements that are inappropriate for preschoolers. Opportunities for teachers to extend children's learning are lessened in large, noisy environments.

Meal and snack schedules should ensure that children are offered nutritious food every two to three hours at appropriate times (not too early or too late) during the schools day. Food should be offered to children who express hunger when arriving at school after a scheduled mealtime.

Emphasizing good nutrition, health, social skills and academic learning during carefully planned meal and snack times helps pave the way for young children's optimal growth and development. The references below may be accessed for further information on any aspect of this essential preschool program component.

American Academy of Pediatrics, American Public Health Association, and National Resource Center for Health and Safety in Child Care and Early Education (2002). Caring for Our Children: National Health and Safety Performance Standards: Guidelines for Out-of-Home Child Care Programs, 2nd editions. Elk Grove Village, IL: American Academy of Pediatrics and Washington D.C.: American Public Health Association. Also available at http://nrc/

Cryer, D., Harms, Thelma., Riley, C. (2003). All About the ECERS-R. Lewisville, North Carolina: PACT House Publishing. Kaplan Early Learning Company.

Child and Adult Care Food Program

Child care centers that offer meals and snacks through the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) play a critical role in supporting the wellness, health, and development of children by providing nutritious foods and beverages. Child care providers are uniquely positioned to help instill healthy habits in young children that can serve as a foundation for healthy choices in life.

CACFP provides guidelines for serving nutritious meals and snacks to infants and children who attend child care centers. A variety of public or private nonprofit child care centers, Head Start programs, outside-school-hours care centers, and other institutions that are licensed or approved to provide child care services participate in CACFP. For-profit centers that serve lower-income children may also be eligible. CACFP reimburses child care centers for meals and snacks that meet the eligibility requirements.

To qualify for reimbursement, meals and snacks must include certain meal components. Meal components align with the food groups of MyPlate. Including foods from each food group ensures children receive nutritionally adequate meals.

CACFP Meal Patterns

The CACFP has different meal pattern requirements based on the age of the child. Meal patterns specify how much of each type of meal component a child should receive in a given meal. CACFP specifies meal patterns for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks. For instance, according to the CACFP child meal patterns, an example of a reimbursable breakfast meal must include foods from the milk, fruits and vegetables, and grains components, served in the portions indicated for each age group.

The updated CACFP meal patterns are below. Keep these for your office documents.

You may also want to review the four-page PDF from the USDA Food and Nutrition Service, Serving School Meals to Preschoolers: School Year 2018-2019 located at which offers guidance around differences between preschool and kindergarten meal patterns, and feeding preschool children in mixed age settings.

Updates to the CACFP

In April 2016, the United States Department of Agriculture&rsquos Food and Nutrition Service published the final rule &ldquoChild and Adult Care Food Program: Meal Pattern Revisions Related to the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act&rdquo in the Federal Register to update CACFP meal patterns in accordance with the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. The new CACFP regulations define early-education age groups as infant&ndash5 months, 6&ndash11 months, 1&ndash2 years, and 3&ndash5 years.

The new CACFP meal patterns increase the consumption of vegetables, fruits and whole grains, allow for more nutritious substitutions, and reduce the consumption of added sugars and saturated fats. The updated standards also take cost and practicality into consideration. These improvements are expected to enhance the quality of meals served to young children.

Here is a summary of key updates affecting CACFP by each food group:

Summary of Key Updates Affecting CACFP by Food Groups [April 2016]

Vegetables & Fruits
  • Establishes a separate vegetable component and a separate fruit component at lunch, supper, and snack
  • Limits fruit juice or vegetable juice to one serving per day for children 1 year and older
  • Requires breakfast cereals to contain no more than 6 grams of sugar per dry ounce. (Starting October 1, 2019, ounce equivalents (oz eq) will be used to determine the amount of creditable grains.)
  • Meat and meat alternatives can be served in place of the entire grains requirement at breakfast a maximum of three times per week
  • At least one serving of grains per day should be whole grain-rich
  • Disallows grain-based desserts from counting toward the grains requirement
Meat, Meat Alternatives, and Dairy
  • Meat and meat alternates can be served in place of the entire grains requirement at breakfast a maximum of three times per week
  • Tofu (a soft food product prepared by treating soybean milk with thickeners) can be a meat alternate
  • Allows cheese, cottage cheese, and yogurt as meat alternates
  • Yogurt can contain no more than 23 grams of sugar per 6 ounces
  • Whole eggs are now creditable for infants and children
Milk & Other Beverages
  • Children 1 year of age must be served whole, unflavored milk
  • Children 2 years and older must be served low-fat or fat-free milk
  • Prohibits flavored milk for children ages 2&ndash5
  • Drinking water should be offered to children and available to children upon request throughout the day
  • Non-dairy beverages can be substituted if they are nutritionally equivalent to milk and meet the nutritional standards for fortification of calcium, protein, vitamin A, vitamin D, and other nutrients to levels found in cow&rsquos milk
  • Limits fruit juice or vegetable juice to one serving per day for children 1 year old and older
General Food Preparation
  • Prohibits deep-fat frying as a way of preparing food on-site
  • Prohibits the use of food as a punishment or reward
  • Codifies practices that must be followed when a provider or center chooses to serve meals family style

The resources below provide a summary of the updates to CACFP and address best practices for implementing CACFP in your facility.

Basic Principles of Menu Planning

Careful menu planning is a fundamental process for successful child care food service programs. Making an effort to plan menus saves time and money you increase efficiency, streamline ordering, and ensure that menus are in compliance with CACFP for meal reimbursement. Menu planning also allows for nutritionally adequate, balanced meals to be served to the children in your facility.

Basic menu planning principles include:

  1. Strive for balance. Menus should balance important nutrients like protein, carbohydrate, fiber, vitamins, and minerals with fat and sodium. Menus should also balance flavors so that menus are not too spicy or too bland.
  2. Emphasize variety. Including a variety of foods not only helps ensure adequate nutrient intake, but also keep menus interesting and appealing. Include different forms of foods and vary how they are served from day to day.
  3. Add contrast. A daily menu should offer contrasting textures, flavors, and colors. For instance, you would not want to serve a breakfast of oatmeal, applesauce, and milk to older children because they are all &ldquosoft&rdquo foods and do not include varying textures.
  4. Consider color. Use combinations of colors that go well together. A good practice is to include at least two different colors in each meal.
  5. Create eye appeal. Foods should look inviting and enticing when they are served to encourage consumption.

Planning Cycle Menus in Child Care Settings

Some child care facilities choose to use cycle menus, which are a set of different daily menu offerings that are served for a specified period. Once all of the menus have been served, the cycle is repeated in the same order. Cycle menus are typically set for a duration of three to five weeks, although they can be any time period. One practice is to set the cycles to be seasonal, such as fall cycle menus, winter cycle menus, etc. This allows for the ability to use seasonal foods such as fresh produce.

There are many benefits to using cycle menus in child care. For instance, using cycle menus can have positive impacts on the nutritional quality of meals, as well as offer streamlined budgeting and preparation aspects of food service.

Benefits of using cycle menus include:

  • More accurate forecasting and use of staffing, equipment, and food-resource needs
  • Allows for bulk ordering of ingredients, which reduces time spent on food purchasing and saves on food costs.
  • Reduction in plate waste when previously-tested menus are served
  • Assurance that menus meet CACFP guidelines
  • Ability to offer a variety of foods that incorporate different textures, colors, and flavors
  • Flexibility to modify menus to meet ordering shortages, acceptability, etc.

Getting started with planning cycle menus involves a few considerations. Think about which cycle length would work the best in your facility. You may wish to have a shorter cycle for breakfast and a longer cycle for lunch, for instance. Be sure to consider the meal pattern requirements for CACFP for the various age groups. This is done by setting the same core menu for all ages and adjusting appropriately, either by increasing portions served or by adding on meal components. Think about your kitchen&rsquos layout, staffing, delivery schedule, and equipment when choosing which recipes to include in your menus. Lastly, consider the &ldquoflow&rdquo of meal service from breakfast through the end of the day and make sure there is sufficient variety of foods served at each main meal and at snacks.

Involving school-age children in the menu planning process is a great way to design meals that appeal to this age group. You can survey the children and ask them to vote which foods (from a selected list) they would like to see on the menu. When children have &ldquobuy-in&rdquo in the meal planning process, they are more accepting of the menu offerings served.

The National Food Service Management Institute has published a reference guide for planning cycle menus that you may wish to download.

Using Standardized Recipes

According to the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), a standardized recipe is one that has been tried, adapted, and retried several times by a child nutrition operation and has been found to produce the same good results and yield every time when the exact procedures are followed with the same type of equipment and the same quantity and quality of ingredients.

Since standardized recipes are prepared the same way each time, using them can streamline food and labor costs.

There are myriad benefits to using standardized recipes in your child care facility, including consistent quality, yield, and nutrient content of meals prepared. From a management standpoint, using standardized recipes helps with controlling food and labor costs, inventory, and purchasing. The information provided in a standardized recipe can be used for record-keeping purposes and the CACFP reimbursement process. Be sure to check with your supervisor to determine what requirements your program has regarding menu approval. For example, some programs require that a nutritionist approve menus before they are released.

What Do Cycle Menus at Department of Defense Child Care Facilities Look Like?

Different child care facilities have different menus. All menus must incorporate a variety of nutritious foods in portions that meet the CACFP requirements for children at each age group. Look over the information in the following example of a Five Week Spring Cycle Menu. What kinds of foods are included? Is there a good variety? Are the items seasonally appropriate? How might these cycle menus help streamline the meal-planning process? Keep the cycle menu handy as you will refer to it later on in this lesson.

What Do Standardized Recipes in Department of Defense Child Care Facilities Look Like?

There are plenty of recipe resources available to child care food service staff that are CACFP-compliant, kid-tested, budget-friendly, and still offer a variety of flavors, textures, and colors. USDA offers some standardized recipes (see In addition, the Department of Defense has a set of standardized recipes for use at child care centers. These recipes contain the ingredients required, the amounts needed for batch cooking, the preparation directions, and nutrition information about the recipe. Use the Department of Defense recipe for Barbeque Pulled Pork on a Roll and Coleslaw. What are some features of the recipes that you notice? Is the layout of the recipes easy to read and understand?

See the following video for more information on successful menu planning.

Mealtime Routines and Tips

For more information, watch these videos from 1,000 Days.

Ready to feed your 6 to 24 month old? Mealtime can be a messy and fun learning experience. Your child may have about 3 meals and 2 to 3 snacks every day. Having a routine can help children know what to expect when it is time for meals or snacks.

Here are some routines and tips for mealtimes:

  • Wash your child&rsquos hands before mealtime.
  • Tip: Worried about a mess? You can put newspaper or a plastic mat on the floor under your child&rsquos high chair or booster seat. This can help with cleanup.
  • Sit your child in a safe place. A high chair or booster seat are good options.
  • Strap your child into the high chair or booster seat.
  • Watch children at all times to make sure they are safe.
  • Face your child toward you or other family members at the table.
  • Limit distractions. Avoid letting TV, videos, cell phones, or pets distract your child from eating. These can also distract you too. Focus on your child during mealtimes.

Children should not watch screens.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends external icon children avoid using screens until they are 18 months old, unless video-chatting with friends or family.

See the reasons external icon for this recommendation.

Talk with your child during mealtimes. This can be a fun time, and it is important for your child to have your attention.

Fingers, spoons, forks, and cups

  • When babies first starts eating foods, you may use a spoon or they may use thier fingers.
  • As children get older, they will develop different skills to help with mealtimes. Learn more about when children will begin to use their fingers, spoons, forks, and cups.
  • Tip: Are you worried about breaking dishes or cups? Use dishes and cups that are not breakable and do not have sharp edges.

Family meals

Children may eat different amounts of food each day.

This is normal. Talk with your child&rsquos doctor or nurse if you are concerned about how much, or how little, your child is eating.

Tips for Parents

As a parent trying to design a healthy eating plan for your kids, you can limit meal options, avoid buying sweets, reduce screen time, set a good example, control food supply and make eating an educational experience.

Limited Meal Options

By providing a limited amount of options, rather than a huge variety, there will be less conflict at mealtime, and you have more of an ability to control the nutrient balance of each meal.

Screen Time

Watching television and playing video games are sedentary activities, and are often accompanied by mindless snacking. Ensure that your kids are getting enough physical activity and working up an appetite for healthy, rejuvenating foods. [11]

Be a Good Example

If your kids see you eating junk food, they will want to do the same. Promoting healthy food for kids also requires parents to be responsible for their diet and set a good example. [12]

Educate your Kids

It is never too early to start teaching kids about the nutritional needs of the body. The sooner they understand the impact of food on their overall health, the sooner they can start making good dietary decisions for themselves. [13]

Nutrition Month: Quality Counts – Bringing Back the Family Meal!

Enjoying family mealtime is an easy (and free!) way to boost the quality of your meal. Eating together as a family can help improve food choices, and lead to healthier weights in children. Kids who share mealtimes with family tend to eat more fruits and vegetables, and less fried food, salty snacks, and pop.

Turning off the TV, and other electronic devices, is important too! Families that sit and have their meal in front of the TV eat less vegetables and fruit, and more fatty foods and sugary beverages. Distractions can also lead to overeating, which puts you at risk for becoming overweight.

We aren’t just talking about dinner! If dinner time is too hectic to sit down as a family, try eating breakfast together, or sitting down to enjoy lunch on weekends. This is a great way to role model healthy behaviours (i.e. eating a healthy breakfast!) and catch up with everyone’s busy lives.

The Benefits of Eating Together

Still not convinced? Here are just a few of the benefits of sitting own to eat as a family.

Benefits of the Family Meal[1]
Tradition Sharing a meal provides the opportunity to pass along family traditions surrounding food, and can also be away to share cultural dishes.
Comfort and Security Children who eat with their families on a regular basis feel secure, and are comforted by knowing when they will eat.
Learning Sharing meals and helping with food preparation/cooking helps children build skills, and learn about food. Parents also have the opportunity to role model health behaviours.
Communication Family mealtimes provide the opportunity for parents to talk with their children and allows everyone to share information about their day.

Here are tips for planning family meals 1 :

  • Plan ahead of time and shop in advance – have foods on hand that can be put together quickly and easily when time is limited. This will eliminate stress and make the mealtime more enjoyable for everyone.
  • Be flexible – family meals don’t have to be eaten at home. They can be enjoyed in the park, at the recreation centre, or by the pool! Just try to keep distractions to a minimum.
  • Involve everyone in preparation – kids will be more likely to try new foods and eat their meals if they have helped in the cooking process. This is also a chance to teach kids important skills.
  • Turn off the devices – focus on family, and healthy eating, to maximize the quality of the meal.

Not sure how to safely involve kids in preparation and cooking[2]?

  • Give kids easy tasks, such as stirring, or adding ingredients to the pot, pan or casserole dish.
  • Cook on weekends, when you can take more time to teach proper techniques.
  • Choose easy-to-follow recipes, and have kids read you the steps out loud.
  • Prepare some ingredients before you start cooking if the skills needed are more advanced.

Looking for more ways to get your kids involved in the kitchen? Click here for age appropriate suggestions!

Bring a little fun to your kitchen with a family cooking challenge 2 .

Cooking together is a great way to connect, and can be fun if you add a challenge.

  • Choose a cookbook, food magazine or website. Each family member picks one recipe to try.
  • Each person makes the chosen recipe for the family. Younger kids might need a little help.
  • When all dishes have been tasted, rate the recipes. You might discover a new family favourite!

Families that eat together, eat healthier! Improving the quality of your meal does not have to cost more money. Enjoying a meal as a family is free, and can help improve eating habits while allowing you to connect with your kids.

Keep checking our Facebook page and Twitter, throughout the month of March, for recipes, tips, and tools to assist you on your #100mealjourney.

[1] EatRightOntario – Family Meals with No TV (2016)

[2] Dietitians of Canada – Making Cooking a Family Affair (2014)

CK Public Health
COVID-19 line: 519.355.1071 x 1900
Email: [email protected]

Book Vaccination Appointment:

Telehealth Ontario 1.866.797.0000 (available 24/7)

Planning a visit to one of our locations? You will be screened for COVID-19 and please wear your mask. Consider calling us first to determine if a visit is necessary.

If you have concerns regarding public health measures not being followed, please call 311 or email:

Food hygiene is essential

Careful preparation of food and correct food handling techniques are important. Childcare centres must observe the following principles:

  • Regular training for all cooks and staff in safe food storage, preparation and handling of food
  • Safe food handling by children and staff, including sharing of food for example when fruit platters are shared
  • Adequate hand washing by staff and children
  • Safe use of microwave ovens for heating food and drinks.


For kids the benefits of eating high quality, nutrient dense meals are many: with increased focus and attention, reduced hyperactivity behavior, improved language skills, better sleeping patterns, improved gut health, strengthened immunity, lower inflammation, stronger physical calmness, and a more peaceful demeanor, nutrition can make all the difference.

For parents the benefits include providing your kids with optimum nutrient health, creating more quality time with family, as well as saving money and decreasing food waste.

Parents spend a lot of time preparing meals for their kids. With KWN, you can spend less time cooking and cleaning, and more time nurturing, playing, and learning.

On average, American families throw away $165 billion worth of food each year. That adds up to 35 million tons of food each year, according to the the Natural Resources Defense Counsel and the Environmental Protections Agency’s most recent estimate. With KWN, you order what you need, never having to worry about wasting food or money.

Make fruit and vegetables more appealing

Whether picky eaters or not, kids don’t always want what’s healthy for them—especially fruit and vegetables. But there are ways to make them more enticing.

The first step is to limit access to unhealthy sweets and salty snacks. It’s much easier to convince your child that an apple with peanut butter is a treat if there are no cookies available. Here are some more tips for adding more fruits and veggies to your child’s diet:

Let your kids pick the produce. It can be fun for kids to see all the different kinds of fruits and veggies available, and to pick our new ones or old favorites to try.

Sneak vegetables into other foods. Add grated or shredded veggies to stews and sauces to make them blend in. Make cauliflower “mac” and cheese. Or bake some zucchini bread or carrot muffins.

Keep lots of fresh fruit and veggie snacks on hand. Make sure they’re already washed, cut up, and ready to go. Add yogurt, nut butter, or hummus for extra protein.

GMOS and pesticides: Keeping your children safe

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are mainly engineered to make food crops resistant to herbicides or to produce an insecticide. Since children’s brains and bodies are still developing, they are more sensitive to these toxins. Eating organic produce has been shown to reduce pesticide levels in kids, but tends to be more expensive. So how can you keep your children safe if you’re on a budget?

  • Feed your kids plenty of fruits and vegetables, whether they’re organic or conventionally grown—the benefits far outweigh the risks.
  • When possible, go organic for fruits and vegetables that you don’t peel before eating, such as berries, lettuce, tomatoes and apples. Choose conventional produce for thick-skinned fruit and veggies like oranges, bananas, and avocados.
  • Explore local farmers’ markets for less expensive organic produce.
  • Scrub conventionally grown produce with a brush. Washing won’t remove pesticides taken up by the roots and stem, but will remove pesticide residue.
  • When buying meat, choose organic, grass-fed whenever your budget allows. Choosing cheaper cuts of organic meat may be safer (and no more expensive) than prime cuts of industrially raised meat.

Breakfast Basics

You probably heard it from your own parents: Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. But now you're the one saying it &mdash to your sleepy, frazzled, grumpy kids, who insist "I'm not hungry" as you try to get everyone fed and moving in the morning.

Even if you eat a healthy morning meal every day, it can be tough to get kids fueled up in time for school, childcare, or a day of play. But it's important to try. Here's how to make breakfast more appealing for everyone.

Why Bother With Breakfast?

Breakfast is a great way to give the body the refueling it needs. Kids who eat breakfast tend to eat healthier overall and are more likely to participate in physical activities &mdash two great ways to help maintain a healthy weight.

Skipping breakfast can make kids feel tired, restless, or irritable. In the morning, their bodies need to refuel for the day ahead after going without food for 8 to 12 hours during sleep. Their mood and energy can drop by midmorning if they don't eat at least a small morning meal.

Breakfast also can help keep kids' weight in check. Breakfast kick-starts the body's metabolism, the process by which the body converts the fuel in food to energy. And when the metabolism gets moving, the body starts burning calories.

Also, people who don't eat breakfast often consume more calories throughout the day and are more likely to be overweight. That's because someone who skips breakfast is likely to get famished before lunchtime and snack on high-calorie foods or overeat at lunch.

Breakfast Brain Power

It's important for kids to have breakfast every day, but what they eat in the morning is crucial too. Choosing breakfast foods that are rich in whole grains, fiber, and protein while low in added sugar may boost kids' attention span, concentration, and memory &mdash which they need to learn in school.

Kids who eat breakfast are more likely to get fiber, calcium, and other important nutrients. They also tend to keep their weight under control, have lower blood cholesterol levels and fewer absences from school, and make fewer trips to the school nurse with stomach complaints related to hunger.

Making Breakfast Happen

It would be great to serve whole-grain waffles, fresh fruit, and low-fat milk each morning. But it can be difficult to make a healthy breakfast happen when you're rushing to get yourself and the kids ready in the morning and juggling the general household chaos.

So try these practical suggestions to ensure that &mdash even in a rush &mdash your kids get a good breakfast before they're out the door:

  • stock your kitchen with healthy breakfast options
  • prepare as much as you can the night before (gets dishes and utensils ready, cut up fruit, etc.)
  • get everyone up 10 minutes earlier
  • let kids help plan and prepare breakfast
  • have grab-and-go alternatives (fresh fruit individual boxes or baggies of whole-grain, low-sugar cereal yogurt or smoothies trail mix) on days when there is little or no time to eat

If kids aren't hungry first thing in the morning, be sure to pack a breakfast that they can eat a little later on the bus or between classes. Fresh fruit, cereal, nuts, or half a peanut butter and banana sandwich are nutritious, easy to make, and easy for kids to take along.

You also may want to check out the breakfasts available at school or daycare. Some offer breakfasts and provide them for free or at reduced prices for families with limited incomes. If your kids eat breakfast outside the home, talk with them about how to make healthy selections.

What not to serve for breakfast is important too. Sure, toaster pastries and some breakfast bars are portable, easy, and appealing to kids. But many have no more nutritional value than a candy bar and are high in sugar and calories. Read the nutrition labels carefully before you toss these breakfast bars and pastries into your shopping cart.

Breakfast Ideas to Try

The morning meal doesn't have to be all about traditional breakfast items. You can mix it up to include different foods, even the leftovers from last night's dinner, and still provide the nutrients and energy kids need for the day.

Try to serve a balanced breakfast that includes some carbohydrates, protein, and fiber. Carbs are a good source of immediate energy for the body. Energy from protein tends to kick in after the carbs are used up. Fiber helps provide a feeling of fullness and, therefore, discourages overeating. And when combined with heathy drinks, fiber helps move food through the digestive system, preventing constipation and lowering cholesterol.

Good sources of these nutrients include:

  • carbohydrates: whole-grain cereals, brown rice, whole-grain breads and muffins, fruits, vegetables
  • protein: low-fat or nonfat dairy products, lean meats, eggs, nuts (including nut butters), seeds, and cooked dried beans
  • fiber: whole-grain breads, waffles, and cereals brown rice, bran, and other grains fruits, vegetables, beans, and nuts

Here are some ideas for healthy breakfasts to try:

  • whole-grain cereal with low-fat milk topped with fruit
  • whole-grain waffles topped with peanut butter or ricotta cheese and fruit
  • whole-wheat pita stuffed with sliced hard-cooked eggs
  • hot cereal topped with nuts or fruit sprinkled with cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, or cloves
  • half a whole-grain bagel topped with peanut butter and fresh fruit (banana or apple wedges) and low-fat milk
  • breakfast smoothie (low-fat milk or yogurt, fruit, and teaspoon of bran, whirled in a blender)
  • vegetable omelet with whole-wheat toast
  • bran muffin and berries
  • sliced cucumbers and hummus in a whole-wheat pita
  • lean turkey and tomato on a toasted English muffin
  • heated leftover rice with chopped apples, nuts, and cinnamon
  • low-fat cream cheese and fresh fruit, such as sliced strawberries, on whole-grain bread or half a whole-grain bagel
  • shredded cheese on a whole-wheat tortilla, folded in half and microwaved for 20 seconds and topped with salsa

And don't forget how important your good example is. Let your kids see you making time to enjoy breakfast every day. Even if you just wash down some whole-wheat toast and a banana with a glass of juice or milk, you're showing how important it is to face the day only after refueling your brain and body with a healthy morning meal.

Common Dinnertime Challenges

Whenever we all get together, we argue. How can I prevent this atmosphere from taking over the dinner table?

Some families argue about particular topics, like messy rooms or a recent science grade. Agreeing to avoid those topics during dinner will decrease fighting during mealtime. Other families just seem to argue as a way of communicating with one another. In such a case, you may want to set certain ground rules. For example, each member has to wait to talk until he or she is holding a particular object, like a seashell, and anyone who raises his or her voice will agree to take a “time out” and calm down before returning to the table. Adults will need to set a good example by trying not to interrupt, and by asking questions rather than arguing with something said.

It’s very important to us that our children grow up with good table manners. How can we teach good manners and not make the atmosphere at dinner uncomfortable?

If you focus on one priority at a time, you won’t let the teaching of good manners dominate the atmosphere. Focusing on those manners that help build respectful speaking and listening, like not speaking with your mouth full or not talking over anyone, seem like a good place to start. Those manners are ones that parents can also try to improve themselves, which will make kids feel less scrutinized.

My children and/or my spouse are texting at the table, and it drives me crazy. How can I ask them to stop without driving them away?

You could ask them to try a no-texting experiment for a week or two to see if the conversation and atmosphere at the table is different for them as well as for you. Or, you could ask that they only use their phones to facilitate conversation, for example, looking up a movie time, defining a word, or settling a dispute, like who won the World Series in 1985.

My child is a picky eater. What should I do to encourage her to try different foods?

The best strategy to prevent picky eating is for parents to model their own enjoyment of foods they are offering their kids at the dinner table. Serving food “family style” in bowls or platters placed on the table allows children to see the adults enjoying a food that the kids can just reach out and try.

The best professional advice I ever heard was from a nutritionist, Ellyn Satter who suggests that it is a parent’s job to decide what healthy food to serve, as well as when and where it’s going to be eaten. But, it is up to the child to decide whether and how much to eat.

In general, the less said about how much or how little is being eaten, the better. The worst strategy is for parents to pressure their kids to eat or to restrict foods. If you want your child to try new foods, you shouldn’t tell them they can’t have dessert unless they eat all their vegetables. Another common mistake is for parents to give up too easily if a child refuses a new food. Researchers have found that children may need eight to 15 offerings of new foods before they decide they like the food. No wonder so many children are deemed “picky eaters” when so many parents give up trying to interest a child in a novel food after one or two attempts.

My children are too young to sit still for long meals. How can I get them to stay put?

It’s important to keep your expectations realistic. Toddlers shouldn’t be expected to sit for more than 10 or 15 minutes, and some may be done in five minutes. Better to have a happy, short dinner that you can build on as your child matures, than to make dinner a time with a lot of rules and fights. Here are some strategies that have been helpful to families with young kids:

  • Make clear that “meal sitting” is different from “school sitting.” So, for example, everyone might wear PJs, or you might play music during the meal.
  • Give your kids ice pops made with fresh juice after they’ve eaten their meals: It will take young kids about five minutes to finish one pop.
  • Invite your child to stir a pot, crumble the cheese, set the timer or choose a menu from two choices offered. Having a hand in making the meal creates pride of ownership, and that may make them stay at the table longer.
  • Avoid having a revolving door at the dinner table. If your child wants to leave the table, allow this only once or twice. After two departures, the child should know that dinnertime is over. This is different from forcing a child to sit but takes away any positive reinforcement derived from leaving the table.
  • Present each part of the meal as a course, for example, peas as an appetizer, pasta with pesto sauce as the main course and orange slices for dessert. Maybe your child can help clear and bring on each course so that you are harnessing a child’s activity in the service of the meal. For example, “While you’re up, would you get the water pitcher?”

How do I keep my teenagers interested in family dinners, when there are so many activities pulling them away?

You may be surprised to learn that when teenagers are asked about the importance of family dinners, they rate them very high on their list of priorities. So, you should assume that your kids want to have dinner with you. If they don’t, start by asking what would make dinnertime more pleasant for them. Here are some strategies that have been helpful to other parents with teenagers: