Author: Marta Katalenas, M.D.
I can’t count with my fingers how many times this month I ordered a blood test to check for anemia after parents complained about the fatigue they observe in their school-age children. Often the test comes back with normal values, but I still have to explain why kids feel exhausted, and often depressed. I then ask parents to describe a normal day at home and at school, including activities and eating habits. After years of experience working with children, an average day in the world of the modern child looks something like this:
Breakfast: Many children don’t eat breakfast and are the faced with a busy morning of study and concentration. Some children go to sports practice first thing in the morning without a balanced breakfast. Of those who do eat breakfast, most opt for carbohydrates as the main ingredient; sugary cereals, toaster pastries and pancakes are favorites. Their blood sugar rises in the morning, coming to an early crash in the middle of the day. Around lunchtime, they start to feel tired and inattentive.
Lunch: Lunch consists of a lunch buffet that gives them choices and, of course, they choose the wrong foods again. What do you expect? They are kids!
Snacks: Children who attend afterschool programs are loaded up with snacks and juice to quell their appetites until dinnertime: few are lucky to be given fresh fruits after school. Other children head to sports practice after class. They exercise for a couple of hours, which is very good, but they are making a big physical effort without the nutritional support to keep up with the demand.
Dinner: It’s getting harder for parents to plan a healthy meal after a long day at work; the quality of dinner suffers as a consequence. After dinner, children must gather strength and concentration ability at a time of the day when they are already tired. Older children may need to spend time getting ready for the next day, studying and finishing up projects. Teenagers are naturally inclined to stay up at night and by the time they get up in the morning, the cycle of activity and poor nutritional support starts all over again.
Are we still questioning why kids look and act tired so often?
What can parents do?
We’ve all heard it before, but it’s still absolutely crucial: make sure children have a balanced breakfast every morning. It must include protein such as eggs, lean meat, cheese, yogurt or milk. They can still have their favorite carbohydrate, just in a smaller amount. Kids will feel more energized, allowing for better concentration at school.
Monitor what your child eats at school. If she picks the school lunch, help her find healthy choices and skip the junk food. Don’t allow extra money for snacks.
Check with your child’s afterschool program to see if you can provide healthy snacks for him or her. Consider bringing fresh fruit, yogurt and low-fat milk on Mondays for your child to eat all week.
If your family heads to sport practices in the evening, get into the habit of having a small cooler in the car where you store fresh fruit, vegetables, yogurts and milk for kids to eat on the go. It’s easy to hit the drive-thru on your way to or from practice, but a little advanced planning can prevent this unhealthy habit.
If kids go home directly after school, have a container in the refrigerator with their name on it.
Cut up a variety of fruits, nuts or cheese. Remove snacks and juice from your pantry. If you don’t have unhealthy foods on-hand, the temptation will be gone!
When you get home, ask your children to go outside and play while you prepare dinner. Go out and join them if you have time while dinner is in the oven or slow cooker.
Plan your dinners on a weekly basis. The whole family can be involved in the process of planning and grocery shopping. Meals can be started during the weekend and kept in the refrigerator or freezer until final preparation for a healthy, balanced dinner.
Marta Katalenas, M.D. is a pediatrician and the owner of The Pediatric Center of Round Rock. She is also a childhood obesity expert, and author of “The Step Up Diet.“