Back-to-School Nutritional Literacy for the Whole Family

Back to school nutritional literacy

Healthy eating. Happy family mother and children prepares vegetable salad in kitchen

In honor of the 20th anniversary of JLW’s literacy focus, we will highlight the different types of literacy each month on the blog. 

August is Kids Eat Right Month, and whether you are getting your child ready to go back to school or you just have fond memories of the fresh start this time of the year brings, now is a great time to brush up your nutritional literacy to make healthy eating easier.

What is nutritional literacy?

Most of us know generally what we should eat to be healthy (even if we don’t always do it!), and that is the first part of nutritional literacy. Nutritional literacy measures our capacity to gain and understand the nutrition information and skills we need to make appropriate dietary decisions. According to research published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, nutritional literacy is made up of six areas:

  1. Having a basic understanding of nutrition and health, including what to eat for a healthy diet;
  2. Understanding the energy sources in food (carbohydrates, protein, fat);
  3. Knowing correct portion sizes;
  4. Being able to read and understand nutrition labels;
  5. Understanding the different food groups and what foods belong to them; and 
  6. Practicing consumer skills to make smart choices when shopping or out to eat. 

Nutrition basics for the whole family

When we were children, we learned many of these nutritional literacy skills in school and in the kitchen at home. For many of us, it’s less about having the knowledge and more about a gap between that knowledge and putting it to work in our daily lives. 

At any age, dietary balance is important for energy and overall health. There are certain groups of food our bodies need—fruits and vegetables, protein, and grains. These give our bodies the building blocks to survive and thrive. We have so many options for getting the produce, protein, and grains we need these days that having a balanced, healthy diet is possible on any budget with any dietary challenges. Our goal is to feed ourselves the fuel we need for optimal performance, which means vitamin-rich, fiber-filled, whole foods.

To get the most out of our nutrition, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) publishes dietary guidelines to help Americans of all ages eat a healthier diet. USDA recommends a diet that includes:

  • A variety of vegetables from all of the different subgroups: dark green, red, orange, starchy, beans, and peas; 
  • Fresh, whole fruits (rather than canned or fruit juices);
  • Grains, where at least half of the intake is from whole grains; 
  • Fat-free or low-fat dairy from sources like milk, yogurt, and cheese;
  • Proteins, including seafood, lean meats, poultry, eggs, legumes, nuts, seeds, and soy; and
  • Healthy fats and oils. 

The guidelines also recommend that a healthy diet limits: 

  • Trans fats and keeps saturated fat to less than 10 percent of calories per day; 
  • Added sugars, so that less than 10 percent of calories per day are from added sugars;
  • Added sodium, not to exceed 2,300 mg per day; and
  • Alcohol to one drink per day for women.

Practical tips for good nutrition

We JLW women tend to give 100 percent in everything we do, but here’s a warning: Going all-in on dietary changes is tempting, but you’ll burn out quickly and feel deprived. Here are three changes to consider this back-to-school season that will make a big dent in your family’s nutrition. 

Eat breakfast. There are many things that can be done to make breakfast fast and easy, even if you’re rushing out the door to work or school drop-off. Make a breakfast smoothie. Enjoy a cup of Greek yogurt with fruit. Make egg muffins in advance and pop them in the microwave for a quick reheat. Breakfast is important because it gives us the energy we need to stay fueled all day. 

Eat vegetables at every meal. Fiber is a wonderful thing, and the fiber in vegetables fills us up for only a few calories. In addition to the fill-up factor, the vitamins in vegetables will increase overall health. Shift the focus at mealtime: Make vegetables the focus and protein the side dish. For vegetable-averse little ones (or big ones), be creative and sneak vegetables into fruit smoothies and check out Jessica Seinfeld’s cookbook or Missy Chase Lapine’s where they show how to sneak vegetables and other healthy food into meals.  

Hydrate. Many of us aren’t drinking enough water. Take a water bottle to work or school and drink consistently throughout the day. When we are dehydrated, it affects how our bodies move nutrients and waste. Dehydration also impacts how quickly cells can make energy. A sign of dehydration is fatigue, and none of us can afford to be tired. A good rule of thumb is to divide your weight by two and drink that many ounces of water daily. For example, for someone who is 140 pounds, her daily water goal would be 70 ounces.

The bottom line

Nutritional literacy is all about having knowledge and putting it into practice. Don’t get bogged down in the details and what food is “good” or “bad.” Focus, instead, on eating vitamin-rich, fiber-filled, whole foods that taste great and make everyone in your family feel even better.

JLW member, Kelly Morgan, Ph.D. owns Tsirona, where she is a health coach for busy, high-achieving women who have put their health on the backburner while kicking butt in the rest of their lives. She has a unique mix of formal education and experience as a certified health coach, fitness nutrition specialist, personal trainer, and RYT 200 yoga teacher.

Kelly’s best-selling book, online coaching, and courses help her clients set their goals and reach success – painlessly. She has been featured in media outlets such as Self, Yoga Journal, Popsugar, and Elite Daily.