It’s that time of year again when you hear squeaking of new sneakers, smell newly sharpened pencils (do children use pencils and sharpeners anymore), and feel the sticky, humid breeze that makes your hair look like damp hay. No more crowded malls or crowded streets with semi-stable drivers. The look of sheer joy and relief on parents’ faces, and the smell of butterflies and rainbows in the air (okay, maybe not).

Back to school….the three words that cause so much happiness for parents and dread for children. Whether it’s back to school or back to college, one of the most important aspects of studying is eating. When I was an undergraduate student, my physics exams were always in the late evening, when you’re completely exhausted and can’t differentiate between Isaac Newton and a Fig Newton. My study snacks on exam day would be M&M’s and chocolate milk. Yup, talk about the breakfast of champions! Obviously I would justify it because milk had protein and chocolate originated from a seed so essentially it was a fruit! However, now that we all know better, let’s figure out what could constitute a healthier school snack.

School presents an exciting day with various stimuli. Children’s energy levels need to cope with their daily activities. A healthy breakfast of protein and complex carbohydrates is essential. Proteins such as eggs, milk, and lean meats are essential for keeping the mind alert and getting the neurons up to par with the rigors of learning. Complex carbohydrates such as whole grain breads and oatmeal are needed to sustain energy throughout the day. Notice I did not mention cereal. Yes, I’m sure there are “nutritious” cereals out there, however, let’s be real. Given a choice, even I’d opt for Cocoa Puffs in a heartbeat. Most cereals contain high amounts of sugar and little to no protein. This puts you in a sugar high, which will make your energy levels crash quickly. Researchers were serious when they said breakfast is the most important meal of the day.

Now as for lunch, I’m not going to reprimand the school systems for the lack of nutritious lunches (who are we kidding; I am going to reprimand them). Cheese pizza and fries daily with a can of cola is nowhere near brain fueling food. Perhaps a good lunch from home will save your money and your health. Some examples are sandwiches made from whole grain bread with low fat cheese and vegetables (think Subway sandwiches), or pita bread with low fat meat, lettuce and tomatoes. If sandwiches aren’t your child’s forte, then pasta primavera (it sounds fancier than it actually is) with vegetables/meat is a good alternative. Make sure to pack some fruit and a small bag of unsalted almonds or pecans as well. Avoid sugary drinks and opt for water or low fat milk.

Most students snack sometime during the day and after school. Many researchers promote snacking, and recharging with a healthy snack is a good way to stay alert throughout the day.  You don’t want your child to fall asleep in the last two classes…especially they are calculus and honors physics. For older students, a handful of nuts or a low fat, low sugar whole grain bar or some dried fruit could be eaten in between classes to sustain energy until they go home. Younger students usually have a designated snack time. Some good snack options for them could be low fat cheese and crackers, milk, fruit slices, cut up vegetables, or yogurt.

The saying “you are what you eat” is very true. Especially during the early years, children need the proper nutrition for them to grow physically and mentally. Proper learning requires proper nutrition. If a child inputs high quality food, then he or she can output high quality performance. A balance of quality protein and whole grain complex carbohydrates is essential for success, both at home and at school. Therefore, don’t forget to eat healthy snacks! As for the M&M’s and chocolate milk….shhhh, save it for Saturdays!