How to choose healthier foods as students return to the classroom

Published: Aug. 15, 2022 at 8:04 AM CDT
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JONESBORO, Ark. (KAIT) - Now that school is back in session, there’s a way parents can help their children get a strong start to their school day.

A balanced meal can supply the nutrients their body needs to work effectively.

So, where do you start?

We teamed up with Will Oliver, manager of NEA Baptist Center for Healthy Children and Wellness Works, to see how to find the perfect items for a healthy lunch.

“I would suggest they start in the produce sections. Fresh fruits, fresh veggies, and from there just work their way around the parameter of the grocery store picking out things from the food groups of MyPlate, which is the new recommendation from the USDA,” Oliver said.

It’s a method that’s proven to work.

Do you remember My Pyramid? Oliver says that’s now outdated. Instead, he said families should look to MyPlate for the perfect balance of fruits, vegetables, grains, protein, and dairy. is based on the dietary guidelines for Americans is based on the dietary guidelines for Americans(U.S. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE)

“If you stick to the parameter of the grocery store, you’re going to be able to pick up all of those items,” Oliver said.

We went shopping with Oliver at Bill’s Cost Plus SuperMarket on East Johnson Avenue. We started in the produce section where he pointed out that pre-packaged fruit, like strawberries, is an easy go-to for families.

But don’t just open those containers and start eating them.

“You always want to wash your fruits and vegetables after you buy them,” Oliver said. “You can take little Ziploc bags, you can divide these up evenly among the amount of kids you have.”

A go-to for many parents is fruit cups. Something Oliver says is a no-no.

“If we flip it over to the back and we look at the nutrition facts--we always want to look at the nutrition facts--we have 110 calories per serving, which if you think about this little cup that’s really a lot. But what we’re looking at is the grams of added sugar,” Oliver said. “So total sugar is 27, and it includes 17 grams of added sugar. Even though fruit as a food source already has sugar naturally occurring inside of it, they’ve added sugar to this cup to make it sweeter and to preserve the fruit inside of it.”

Oliver says you want to avoid items with added sugar and lots of sodium.

Another tip: avoid the middle aisles. They’re usually filled with items high in calories.

“If we’re doing that, we’re probably tailoring more towards foods that are calorie dense versus nutrient-dense,” Oliver said. “Whereas the ones that are going to be on the aisles, the chips, the cakes and cookies, and all those things, they are going to be low in nutrients, but very high in calories.”

But, he adds, everyone has their vices, and when making a transition to healthy eating with children, there can still be a give and take.

“As a health and wellness professional, I’m not an advocate for restricting people of the foods that they like to eat. I’m a champion of eating things in moderation,” Oliver said. “I personally love spicy nacho Doritos, so that’s the one thing I try to allow when I go grocery shopping.”

But whether you’re choosing a snack or something a little healthier, always read what you’re consuming.

“It’s important to just look on the back, know the ingredients, the nutrients, and how it was prepared,” Oliver said.

One of the biggest things parents can do to help their children is to choose a healthier lifestyle themselves.

“Parents set the example,” said Oliver. “It’s going to be really hard to persuade your child to adopt a healthier lifestyle if they don’t see you doing the same thing.”

To help get started, Oliver offers a basic meal for children.

“If we stick to our MyPlate model, I’m a big fan of baby carrots. So, we got our veggies there. Bananas are really easy, low mess, and low maintenance. For protein, you can grab some chicken breast, you can cut that up into strips, and you can season it how you want. I recommend going light on the seasoning cause of sodium. Kind of want to stay low on that. Dairy, you can also go with the cartons of milk. My personal favorite, I really like string cheese, which you can also pick up on the parameters of most groceries stores, and then grains; you can do rice, you can do quinoa, and you can even throw in some slices of whole wheat bread, and that would be a really easy meal.”

That’s exactly what it comes down to, easy meals even if you’re on a budget.

Oliver said one misconception is inflation and the price of food when choosing to eat healthier. He says you can still eat healthy with prices being higher and even on a budget because you need less food to help you feel satiated.

“We don’t necessarily have to eat to a point we feel miserable. What happens is that we get accustomed to all of these foods that are low density or calorie dense and don’t have a lot of nutrients. As a result, they don’t sit on your stomach very long, so you don’t feel full until you eat more, and then you’re hungry an hour or two later,” he said. “Whereas if you eat foods that are nutrient-dense, you have to eat less of that particular food to start to feel full. You don’t really ever get to that point where you feel miserable or super stuffed eating foods that are super nutritious.”

He says there’s also a bigger picture when it comes to being healthy as a whole.

While food plays a huge role in good health, mindset, exercise and sleeping also play a part.

“Kids associate doing many things with eating,” Oliver said. “Breaking that can help with breaking overeating.”

For more information about healthy choices for your family or to learn more about the Center of Healthy Children, contact him at or click here.

To learn more about MyPlate, tools, resources, and recipes, click here.

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