By Dr. Russell LaForte

So, you've bought your kids school supplies and crammed their bags full of books, but are you ready for them to go back to school? As your child returns to school this month, you may be wondering, how can I keep my child eating right this next year at school.

First, recognize that nutrition begins at home. Setting a good example yourself is an important step. Showing your child how to eat healthy will lead to better choices in the school cafeteria, as well. If you make your children’s lunches, have them participate. The younger they start forming good habits, the better.

Complex carbohydrates such as breads, cereals, rice and pasta are an important part of a balanced diet and easy to include in lunches. Fiber-rich whole grains such as oatmeal, whole wheat bread and pasta and brown rice should be encouraged. Six-12 servings of grains each of one ounce (60-100 calories) are recommended each day. Portion size is important. One slice of bread and 1/2 cup of pasta and one cup of cereal equals one serving. A large hamburger bun or bagel is actually three servings. Many “single serving” packaged items such as crackers, pretzels, or chips actually contain 2-3 servings. Remember, chips are a fried food. “No carb” or “Atkins” diet are not recommended for children. The more whole grains the better.

A diet rich in fruits and vegetables is encouraged for all ages. The goal of at least five fruits and vegetables each day is helped by adding lettuce and tomato to a lunchtime sandwich and packing a piece of fruit. Baby carrots and celery sticks pack a big crunch factor at any meal and can be sent with any child over age 4. Juice packs contain vitamins but are low in filling fiber. Juice should be limited to no more than 3/4 cup per day for children of healthy weight and for children who are overweight to no more than one or two days a week.

Protein is another important nutrient in any healthy diet. Good sources include lean meats such as turkey, ham and tuna, which also provide good sources of iron to prevent anemia. Beans are also an important protein source. Nut butters and eggs include more fat, but can be used in moderation. Almond and cashew butter contain healthier oil ratios than peanut butter. Again, portion size is important.

However, a proper diet for children is more than just a smaller version of your diet. It should be higher in calcium, so 3-4 servings of dairy products are essential. In the school-age child, low-fat or non-fat milk, cheese and yogurt are preferred. Dairy is also high in protein, which with calcium forms a basis for growing bones and muscles.

Fats are another important source of energy for your growing child, so using fats in moderation is important. Small amounts of mayonnaise or ranch dressing to dip veggies may add an important energy source to sustain them to the end of school day. Fats from plant-based sources such as olive oil and nuts are usually much healthier than animal fats.

It’s good to plan for special treats as well. The daily consumption of sodas, ice cream or fried foods may not cause an active child problems, but remember, your child is setting eating patterns for the rest of his or her life. Sweet drinks, even juice, should be limited as well. But, an all out ban never works. Unless your child needs to gain weight, try to keep “treats” under 10 percent of total calories.

More difficult is what to give the overweight child for lunch. The answer depends upon the severity of the weight problem. If severe, a trained professional should help make a healthy treatment plan. If less severe, cutting down the amount of high calorie and high fat foods such as chips, cookies and pizza should prove helpful. Encouraging an overweight child to consume more vegetables and fruits -- but not juice -- will also help. Beverages that contain fructose, like juice or soft drinks, should be discouraged. Low-fat or non-fat dairy and water should be the main drinks for the overweight child.

As always, including your child in the process is important.

LaForte is director of the Center for Weight Management at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.

The Your Health column is written by health and medical experts at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. The column focuses on topical health issues that we believe are of interest to your readers. It is e-mailed every Tuesday. If you have any questions about the column, or would like to suggest topics, please contact John Koloen, media relations specialist, at (409) 772-8790 or email jskoloen@utmb.edu.