Stocking Your Pantry for Back-to-School

Yes, life is about to get busier. But that doesn’t mean sacrificing healthy meals.

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Are you frantically running around trying to get your kids ready for school? Gathering school supplies, buying new clothes and sports gear, arranging carpools and scheduling after-school activities are all on your "to do" list – but don't forget about stocking your pantry with healthy foods.

The Importance of Snacks

During the week, kids come home from school ready to devour whatever they can get their hands on. Oftentimes this ends up being chips, baked goods or other high-calorie foods that are stocked in the pantry. These foods lack important nutrients kids need for proper growth and development. Snacks should be viewed as mini-meals and provide nutrients kids are often missing, like calcium, iron, fiber, vitamin A and vitamin C. Parents should use this opportunity, when the child is very hungry, to present tasty and nutrient-rich foods – kids are more likely to eat them at that time.

Whole Foods vs. Processed Snacks

Whole foods like fresh fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, nonfat and low fat milk, cheese and yogurt provide a wide variety of good-for-you nutrients kids need. However, processed snacks can have their place too. Whole grain crackers, whole grain cereal, air-popped popcorn, granola bars, snack bars and whole grain pretzels are healthy choices. Read the label to make sure you're buying packaged foods without a laundry list of ingredients – the simpler, the better. Also, compare labels and choose whole grain varieties with more fiber and less added sugar per serving. Check the ingredient list and avoid hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils (aka trans fat). If you do serve a packaged snack, complement it with a whole food. Here are some suggestions:

• 1 cup whole grain cereal with 3/4 cup nonfat milk

• Granola bar and 1 cup of fresh strawberries

• 5 to 6 whole grain crackers topped with 1 ounce of reduced fat cheese

• Sliced apple with 1 to 2 tablespoons natural peanut or almond butter

Some of my favorite kid-friendly snacks:

Bars

• KIND Fruit & Nut bars or Nuts & Spice bars

• Cascadian Farms Organic Chocolate Chip Chewy Granola Bar

Nut Butters

• Peanut Butter & Co. Easy Squeezy Peanut Butter Squeeze Packs

• Justin's Almond Butter squeeze packs

Fruits and Veggies

• Just Tomatoes dried fruits and vegetables

• Snapea Crisps

Chips

• Way Better Sprouted tortilla chips

• Beanitos bean chips

• Kashi Pita Crisps Original 7 Grain with Sea Salt

The Weeknight Rush 

During the week, getting a quick and easy dinner that's both tasty and healthy can be challenging. Although rushing to the nearest fast food joint may be tempting, use these tips to make a healthy dinner possible:

• Pre-plan weeknight meals over the weekend.

• Make a shopping list and hit the grocery store over the weekend so you have all the ingredients on hand.

• Once a month, cook and freeze meals for those days that you don't have time to cook. Lasagna, meatballs, chili, sloppy Joes, casserole and soups are perfect to cook now and freeze for later.

• Don't be afraid to use leftovers – leftover chicken makes a great quesadilla topping with cheese, or wrap leftover quinoa salad in a whole wheat tortilla for a quick dinner.

• Start collecting enticing recipes that take fewer than 30 minutes to make. As you read your favorite healthy food magazines, tear out pages or look online and print the recipes. Keep a folder or binder with your favorite healthy recipes.

• Keep a well-stocked pantry with healthy ingredients. Stock up on the following:

Condiments and flavor enhancers

Olive oil (for cooking) and extra-virgin olive oil (for salads)

• Canola oil: for cooking and baking

• Toasted sesame seed oil: for quick stir-fries

• Red wine vinegar: for homemade vinaigrette

• Apple cider vinegar: for lighter dressings on vegetable or grain salads

• Low-sodium chicken and vegetable stock: add flavor to rice dishes, soups and sauces

• Whole wheat panko: add crunch to fish and chicken fingers

Proteins

• Chunk light tuna packed in water: for casseroles and tuna melts

• Canned low-sodium beans (black, pinto, kidney, cannellini): Add to chili, quesadillas, tacos, and soups or toss on a salad

Whole Grains

• Brown rice

Quinoa

• Whole grain pasta like Barilla Plus

Bottom line: Get prepared for back-to-school by stocking your pantry with healthy snacks and dinner ingredient staples. This will not only make your life easier, it'll also help provide your child important nutrients for proper growth and development.

Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns and feedback.

Toby Amidor , MS, RD, CDN, is the owner of Toby Amidor Nutrition and consults and blogs for various organizations including FoodNetwork.com's Healthy Eats Blog and Sears' FitStudio.