5 ways 'back-to-school' isn't what it used to be

Kids Learning with Technology

I don't know about you, but for me, mid-August through the first week of September used to arrive with a side dish of angst. Getting that school supply list on the first day of classes and rushing to the stores early to find everything in all the right colors and just the right sizes felt like we were partaking in a wild scavenger hunt!

A notebook for each subject, big boxes of pencils and countless crayons got stuffed into new backpacks. In retrospect, we're lucky we didn't need to schedule chiropractor appointments for the kids who carried those heavy loads.

But now that my kids are grown and shopping for school supplies has been replaced with buying housewares for their apartments, I nostalgically look back on those days and can't help but notice how back-to-school buying has changed. Screens have supplanted papers, and keyboards have replaced pencils. Even our meals and snacks are different – for better or worse. Here's how to ensure your kids' choices are for the better:


It used to be that a bagel with butter or cream cheese, or pastries popped into the toaster, provided a shot of sugar to boost the beginning of the day. The emphasis was on grabbing something quick, rather than focusing on something nutrient-rich. It's a wonder we didn't feel like laying on our desks by 10 a.m.!

Today, kids can have it all, by choosing breakfasts with benefits. The goal should be to wake up to meals that are fast, and that also supply energy that lasts. An assortment of ready-to-eat breakfast cereals, for example, are lining your supermarket shelves to provide whole grains and – when paired with yogurt or milk – give our kids the calcium, potassium and fiber they often lack.

When it comes to cereal, there's no guesswork – you can just look at the box and know how it will taste. That could be a comforting way to start the day. Try to choose a type that mentions whole grains first on its ingredient list and has around 5 grams of fiber. Aim to keep the grams of sugar in the single digits, and remember that cereals that contain real fruit may show a higher sugar content. If you want to slash your sugar content in half, combine equal parts of a favorite cereal with one that has only 1 gram of sugar per serving.

SEE MORE: 10 essential items to pack in your child's go-bag


Back in the day, lunch boxes were hot ... literally! They may have had a cool picture on the outside, but they were made of metal and they had no insulation on the inside. I had no clue about food safety growing up, so keeping that sandwich cold was not my priority – it was that outer design on the box that mattered most. Today's lunch boxes, or bags, are often made of plastic or vinyl, with enough room to squeeze in an ice pack or frozen water bottle to keep food chilled. (Just remember to sneak in a love note to your child and create a memory that will last way beyond lunch.)

In the past, if you bought lunch at school, the offerings may have included whole milk, meat loaf, some iceberg lettuce and white bread accompanied by a pat of butter. Now, school lunch has gotten more colorful, with some school cafeterias even housing salad bars to help make fruits and veggies look tempting. Schools generally offer breads made of whole grains and main dishes that are meat-free.

After-School Snacks

We used to call drinkable frosty treats milkshakes. They were made with whole milk, ice cream and some sort of syrup. Although I'll admit they were certainly tasty, the transition to smoothies made with a potpourri of produce has become a healthier way to welcome kids home after school. This type of beverage could set them on the right track to do their homework or participate in after-school sports.

SEE MORE: Healthy snacks for when you feel hangry

To make a smoothie with mega benefits, include some plain Greek yogurt (providing protein and calcium), a few favorite fruits and veggies (great sources of potassium, beautiful colors and delicious flavors) and ice (to help chill, thicken and hydrate). Smoothies are a great way to help your children eat the produce they may not get enough of in a form that's quick and easy to prepare. If you teach your kids how to make smoothies, they may also be more willing to experiment with previously shunned fruits and veggies.

We also know that kids love to dunk, so fruits dipped in yogurt and veggies dipped in hummus can also make perfect after school pick-me-ups.


Back in the day, moms and dads usually looked for convenience when it came to getting dinner on the table. Turns out, convenience is still the No. 2 reason why most of us choose the foods we eat. (Taste rules at No. 1.) In my house growing up, we sometimes relied on (and often requested) TV dinners. I fondly remember the fried chicken, mashed potatoes and warm brownie packed into a sectioned foil tray. Although they were not exactly calorie-controlled dishes, those little trays inadvertently kept a check on portion sizes. And don't let the name fool you – we didn't watch TV while eating.

Dinners these days, however, are frequently interrupted with after-school sporting events for kids or late work meetings for parents. Then, when we finally sit down to eat together, nearly half of 18- to 30-year-olds text, email and check social media during meals, surveys show. But there's hope. Numerous studies have shown that kids who eat with their families get better grades in school, are less likely to abuse drugs and even tend to eat more vegetables.

To bridge the gap and evoke conversation, it might be a good idea to establish a no-device rule at certain times of day, particularly at the table. This practice could help families share more than just a meal. Just remember: The rule applies to mom and dad, too!


As a child, I don't remember watching TV right before going to bed. As parents, we never allowed TVs in our kids' bedrooms either. But now, when it comes to shutting down before getting shut-eye, we see how much times have changed. According to Business Insider, 90 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds sleep with their smartphones. A 2011 survey from the market research firm YouGov showed that 48 percent of 16- to 34-year-old respondents said they used their phone as an alarm. I'm not worried about wristwatches or alarm clocks going out of style; however, I am concerned that all of this screen time before bedtime impacts performance in the classroom – and the boardroom.

Moreover, one of the most comprehensive studies on the connection between limited sleep and weight gain highlights the fact that sleep-restricted subjects packed on pounds and consumed more than 550 more calories per day on average than those who got an adequate night's sleep.

The link between diet and sleep can be compared to the chicken or egg problem — which comes first? You need to eat healthfully to sleep soundly, but getting enough ZZZ's also encourages a healthy diet and lifestyle. Regardless of why your or your kid's sleep cycle is disrupted, detaching from poor eating habits (such as excessive snacks and caffeine before bed) and unplugging devices can help. Why not start tonight?

SEE MORE: What parents need to know about Enterovirus

Copyright 2015 U.S. News & World Report

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