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Teaching children about proper nutrition

"If you put junk in your tank, you get junk results." So says Brandee Leblanc, owner of B Healthy Foods and mother of four. She said after the birth of her first child she realized the weighted responsibility of caring for another life.
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Brandee Leblanc prefers to use bento style lunch boxes for her children.

"If you put junk in your tank, you get junk results."

So says Brandee Leblanc, owner of B Healthy Foods and mother of four. She said after the birth of her first child she realized the weighted responsibility of caring for another life. Naturally, she began to think about where food comes from. She wanted to know the healthiest options for her growing children.

"I want my kids to develop good eating habits. Having quality food around in childhood will hopefully transfer to quality choices in adulthood."

As families get ready to send their children back to school, the topic of healthy meals and snacks undoubtedly arises. Prepackaged food is an easy way to fill your child's lunch bag. But they are often chock full of unhealthy sugars, fats and salt.

So, what healthy options can we make available for children at home and at school?

Healthy living starts at home

Leblanc says the best way to teach your kids about nutrition is to be a good role model. She takes an organic, plant-based approach to eating. Although people have different preferences and emotional attachments to certain ways of eating, she said everybody could benefit from going back to the basics.

"So, eating from the ground as much as we can, less processed, less packaged – that could be an overall great lesson for everybody to learn from."

Bento boxes are the keys to success at the Leblanc household. There's no need to worry about separate containers, as the Japanese-style lunch box comes with separate compartments. Leblanc said she will cut and portion fruits and veggies ahead of time and put them straight into the bento box. This gives her kids a variety of options to choose from and reduces the use of prepackaged foods.

Leblanc also teaches her kids about growing, harvesting and preparing food. They have a small garden to grow a few fruits and vegetables (mostly berries and root veggies suited to our climate). Some of her kids have taken cooking classes at Servus Place, where they learned basic recipes.

Cooking classes, community meals and gardening programs are things Leblanc would like to see more of in her children's schools. While some students are provided these options, Leblanc said it would be great to see everybody getting involved.

"I think the more we can get kids involved hands-on with the food, the more they learn about and question where food is coming from."

School nutrition programs

Bertha Kennedy Catholic Elementary School has a comprehensive school health project. Grade 2 teacher Dolores Andressen said healthy learning starts with healthy eating.

"It's an initiative we've adapted at our school that has three pillars: healthy eating, active living and positive mental health. We centre activities around those three things."

At the beginning of the year, they assemble a leadership team of Grade 5 students called the Healthy BobKats. These students set the tone for the year's activities and come up with ideas for different health-themed days. In the past, they've had things like water week or apple day, when teachers can plan related activities along the lines of the curriculum.

Bertha Kennedy embraces food knowledge. They have both indoor and outdoor gardens open to students. Andressen said children enjoy working in the gardens, but especially like eating the fresh food. Tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, lettuce and onions are just a few of the things they'll grow. When it comes time to harvest, they'll create a meal for everyone to share.

"Some years we've grown a lot of tomatoes, so we have salsa day. It depends on the year and the children – what their interests are. So, (the meal) changes," Andressen said.

Andressen also makes a point to teach her students how to read nutrition labels. She said, even at Grade 2, they are able to understand the implications of high sugar, fat and salt content.

"We spend as a society, a lot of money on health. I think it would be smarter to spend that money on prevention and wellness instead. So, if we can help people with the patterns and habits they're learning now, it will carry them through their lifetime."

Creating a healthy standard

Alberta Education recently began funding a School Nutrition Program. It first began in 2016 as a pilot project, supporting 14 public and separate school authorities across the province. Now, the government is allocating about $15.5 million for an elementary school nutrition program. From this, they estimate 30,000 students will benefit from a nutritious meal each day of the 2018-19 school year.

Participating school boards must design a program that consists of at least one nutritious meal or snack, according to Alberta's nutrition guidelines. Every school will have students with different needs. So, it's up to the school authorities (administration, office staff and school counsellors) to research what students need most: breakfast, lunch or snacks.

Last year, the St. Albert Public School Board used the funds to support a hot lunch program at Robert Rundle Elementary School. Marianne Barrett, deputy superintendent, said this year the funds will help provide healthy snacks for children at Robert Rundle and Wild Rose Elementary schools.

Most of our kids are coming with decent lunches, but where we were seeing the high sugar content was really in that snack component. So, that's where we really want to focus," Barrett said.

The public school board also has an Appetite to Achieve program, in which schools are supplied with healthy breakfast and snack options for needy students. The program is funded through community sponsors and school fundraisers. Barrett said when they first started to look for community contributions, there was a perception there wasn't a high level of need in St. Albert.

"I think there's need in every community. So, even though St. Albert is relatively affluent, there's still pockets of need and we should work together to support those families in a respectful way."

Expert advice for planning healthy meals

It can be reassuring to know children are getting a proper education about the power of foods at school. Yet, it can also be frustrating when children don't respond to the guidance parents or teachers are trying to provide.

Registered dietitian Emily Mardell works closely with families to put nutrition into practice in their kitchens. She says common feeding challenges often centre around picky eating, managing treats and environments that don't set people up for success.

Parents can be reassured picky eating is a normal stage in child development. Mardell says it may take 15 to 30 times before a child accepts a certain food. But consistency is key. If the food is constantly being eaten by role models, the child will eventually learn to normalize it. She said it's also important not to put any kind of pressure on the child, as that often leads to a negative relationship with food.

All children are choosy when it comes to food in all shapes or forms. (Parents should) think about the long game when it comes to raising a healthy eater; so, the high chair to high school perspective," Mardell said.

When it comes to treats, Mardell says she doesn't like to position food as good or bad. People should be able to choose what treat they want and when. However, limits should be set. Mardell said she gives her daughter the opportunity to choose two treats a week to put in her lunch box because it gives them both something to feel good about.

"I'm not worried about (that treat) because it's not going to make or break her healthy eating pattern. It's more of a cascade of behaviours and choices over a longer period of time."

Overall, Mardell recommends parents provide balanced meals, healthy snacks and routine around meals.

For more information on stellar recipes and nutritional tips, visit Mardell's website at

Managing the rushed morning

Registered dietitian Emily Mardell says a reliable breakfast routine is a great way to start the day, but often needs to happen in only 15 minutes. Here are some tips from Mardell on how to manage rushed mornings:

• Identify an hour once or twice a week to prepare make-ahead breakfasts and grab 'n' go snacks.

• Peel, cut and portion fruits and veggies for snacks ahead of time.

• Utilize leftover veggies and proteins with eggs in a mini quiche for breakfast.

• Hide healthy veggies and lentils in muffins or smoothies for a fun twist kids will love.

• Present food in a form that's already familiar to kids, such as a breakfast pizza made with high-fibre pita and healthy toppings.