11 Ways to a Happy Healthy School Year

As surely as night follows day, the clanging of school bells will soon replace the carefree sounds of summer. And while purchasing classroom supplies, signing up for after-school activities, and planning transportation are important, keeping kids happy and healthy at home and in the classroom should be at the top of your list.

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Healthy Lunch Prep for Kids

Lunch is often the overlooked meal—barely a speed bump between morning and afternoon. Yet researchers have found that students who attend schools that contract with a healthy school lunch vendor score higher on state achievement tests.

“A well-balanced diet provides nutrients that a child needs to supply energy for study and play, and to attain normal growth and development,” says Kim Campbell, MPH, RD, LDN, CDE, a diabetes educator with the St. Luke’s Center for Diabetes Education in Center Valley.

Public school lunch must meet certain standards—they need to provide fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and non-fat or low-fat dairy. “But home-packed lunches can meet these recommendations, too,” says Campbell. “And they allow children and parents control over food choices and portion sizes.” Here are Campbell’s top tips on how to set up a healthy lunch box—and how to make it enticing:

Strike a balance: A healthy lunch provides a whole grain, a protein source, dairy, and vegetables or fruit. It’s good to provide at least three different food group choices per meal. Look at choosemyplate.gov for details on food groups and lists. It’s often tempting to include a sweet treat, but it’s best to make this a small weekly option instead of a daily thing.

Go bite-sized: Small kids like small food. Mini bagels, pita bread, crackers, or wraps cut in slices are easy to manage. Fill ‘em up with something that provides protein such low-sodium deli meat or leftover roast chicken, sliced cheese, peanut butter, hummus, or beans; and add some crunch with carrot shreds or sliced cucumbers. If your kid’s the DIY type, package ingredients separately so they can build their own mini sandwiches at lunch time.

Prep ahead: Gathering items the night before will save you some stress in the morning. Cut bell peppers, carrots, or celery (perfect for ants on a log!) when making a salad for dinner the night before. Slice up leftover chicken breast or another meat. Put some grapes, kiwi pieces, or a half cup of berries in a plastic container. Package it all up and grab ’n go in the morning.

Use time-saving foods: String cheese, hummus cups, yogurt, and fruit you don’t need to wash (like easy-to-peel clementines) make lunch prep easier. Snack-size portions of edamame may be found in the frozen food aisle, which will thaw through the morning for a cold, healthy treat at mid-day. Baby-size lunch box peppers, which can be eaten whole, are also a smart pick.

Say What? How to Spot Hearing Problems in Kids

Two to three out of every 1,000 children in the United States are born with a detectable level of hearing loss in one or both ears, and others may develop hearing loss as they grow older, due to infections or exposure to loud noises. And this is concerning, as hearing is extremely important to a child’s development—socially, emotionally, and cognitively.

That’s why children are checked often for hearing difficulties, including babies, who are screened for hearing at birth. Most pass with flying colors, and if they don’t, they’re referred to a specialist for more testing, says Jeffrey Bedrosian, MD, an otolaryngologist affiliated with St. Luke’s University Health Network.

But once their baby is home, how do parents know if their child isn’t hearing well? “The most common cause of hearing loss in babies six months to one year old is from fluid behind the ear drum, which happens when kids have recurrent ear infections; and this hearing loss is usually temporary,” says Dr. Bedrosian. So be sure to talk with your pediatrician if your baby is not doing the following: responding to loud sounds, turning their head to the sound of voices, or following simple instructions (once they’re old enough to do so).

As children grow, their hearing is checked often at school and at doctors’ appointments, usually at ages four, five, six, eight, and 10. Signs of hearing loss in children include: not hitting milestones in learning to talk, turning up the volume on the TV, having difficulties understanding teachers in school, frequently being inattentive or unfocused, or answering questions inappropriately.

If you are concerned your baby or child isn’t hearing well, talk with your pediatrician, who can conduct more hearing tests and hopefully put your mind at ease.

Reading: It Does a Mind Good

Bath, book, bed: It’s a tried-and-true nighttime routine for many families—and the book part is especially key for children’s development.

“No age is too early to start reading to your child—start as soon as you get home from the hospital,” says Elyse Jones, MD, pediatrician at St. Luke’s Allentown Pediatrics. “At this age, it doesn’t even matter what you’re reading—it could be a magazine!”

That’s because, even just hearing your voice and being close to you—regardless of the words on the page—helps build a crucial parent-child bond.

“Studies show that children who have been read to from the start show greater brain stimulation later in childhood,” says Dr. Jones. “It also helps establish reading as a fun activity, so it doesn’t just feel like homework once they’re in school.”

With toddlers, selecting board books with colorful shapes, different textures, and animals can expose children to a world of new vocabulary and conepts. And allowing them to flip the pages helps develop fine motor skills, says Dr. Jones.

As kids get a bit older, involve them in the process of selecting books to help keep the routine enjoyable; and once they know how to read, ask them to start reading out loud to you, too, suggests Dr. Jones. “This develops oral communication skills and boosts confidence before they’re required to read aloud in school.” 

Keep in mind, though, that reading should never feel like a chore. Don’t be focused on powering through a book—read slowly, pause to answer your chid’s questions, and go on related tangents or make up your own stories along the way.

Need a good book? Here are a few terrific read-aloud options to try:

The Fire Cat by Esther Averill
Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown
Go, Dog. Go! by P.D. Eastman

Let’s Play!

Over the past half century, children’s free play time with other children has declined sharply, according to recent research. Over the same period, anxiety, depression, suicide, feelings of helplessness, and narcissism have increased sharply. It’s not hard to see the connection there. But why is play so important?

“Studies dating back to 1964 suggest that exploration, self-discovery, and imaginative play stimulate brain development and strengthen a child’s emotional intelligence,” says Melissa Carroll, Beginning School and Lower School Director of the Swain School in Allentown. “We see evidence of this in the classroom through a child’s ability to creatively problem solve, self-advocate, persevere, and self-regulate.”

“When four-year-olds engage in block play to build imaginary cities, they explore concepts of physics, while learning to communicate and work together. When seven-year-olds experiment with recyclable materials to construct functioning snow sleds, they learn to calculate, problem solve, and to fail and start again. Play allows for space to experiment, imagine, and grow.” 

So, how much play time should kids get? There’s no magic number, but probably more than they’re currently getting, says Carroll, who suggests taking many small “brain breaks” for play throughout the day. “When play is incorporated throughout the day, resilience and creativity instinctively become part of a child’s repertoire,” she says. 

All this might have you wondering: What about adults? Don’t we deserve some play time, too? “Play allows our brain to relax and break the cycle of worry that many of us get into,” says Eva Ritvo, MD, a psychiatrist and author of Bekindr. Definitely something most of us need!

A simple solution: toss a frisbee, play tag, dust off a board game, or just have a dance party in the living room with the whole family. You—and your kids—will be glad you did.

“This Surgery Changed My Life.”

“Depending on what study you look at, between 60% and 70% of the U. S. population is either overweight or obese,” says Leonardo Claros, MD, FACS, Chief of Bariatric Surgery at St. Luke’s Weight Management Center. “It’s considered a pandemic, and the U. S. is the most obese nation in the world.”

While being severely overweight is a health problem in itself, it can also aggravate or induce a laundry list of others conditions (known as co-morbidities), including high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke, osteoarthritis, and body pain and difficulty with physical functioning.

Cassie Enderes, a 34-year-old mother of two who lives in Brodheadsville, can testify to that. She was afflicted with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a hormonal disorder that can be complicated by obesity – and she was carrying 245 pounds on her 5’2” frame.

Both of her pregnancies were accompanied by the threat of long-term diabetes. “That disease runs in my family,” she says, “and I developed gestational diabetes in the third trimester of my first pregnancy.”

Gestational diabetes results when hormones from the placenta cause an increase in blood glucose that requires more insulin than the pancreas can produce. The condition usually disappears after birth, and so it was with Cassie. Six weeks after her son Landon was born, her glucose levels were normal.

But the condition reemerged at the start of her second pregnancy and required four doses of insulin each day. After her son Asher was born, Cassie’s glucose tests indicated she was on the brink of developing full-blown Type 2 diabetes. “I didn’t want to be on medication for the rest of my life,” she says, and so she was determined to get rid of her excess weight.

Cassie’s children provided additional incentive. Older son Landon is a nine-year-old baseball player, and five-year-old Asher loves playing soccer. “I got out of breath just from climbing stairs,” she says. “How would I be able to kick soccer balls or go on bike rides with them?”

But diets didn’t help, and neither did exercise. She attributes those difficulties to her PCOS. “I didn’t metabolize food properly,” she says. “I often told people I could get fat just from drinking water! And I was always looking at the scale – gain two pounds, lose one, gain two more. I could never get ahead.”

Cassie runs her own business, providing hair and makeup services to brides in the Poconos area, and works in a salon two days a week as a hair colorist. One day, a co-worker suggested a procedure she had undergone at St. Luke’s, which yielded amazing results.

Formally known as a sleeve gastrectomy, the operation removes a major portion of the stomach. “We take out about 80% of it,” Dr. Claros says. “The stomach becomes long and thin; and because patients are able to eat much less food, weight loss is the result.” The procedure also reduces the amount of ghrelin, an appetite-stimulating hormone, produced by your stomach.

Cassie’s surgery was performed in 2015 and she’s still happy with the results. Within the first week, she shed 18 pounds. Just 10 days after the surgery, she was cleared to begin working out in a gym. Within five months, through diet and exercise, Cassie dropped 75 pounds – 31% of her original weight.

She’s maintained that weight loss through proper nutrition and exercise, and her PCOS and diabetes are gone. Her energy level has soared, and it’s much easier to play with her boys. “My confidence level skyrocketed,” she adds, “I gained a love for myself I never thought I’d have.”

The Surprising New Fix for Low Back Pain

In his prime, Paul Ferency of Forks Township was a 6’5”, 350-pound wall of muscle—and he knew how to use it. “I was among the top 5% of people on earth when it comes to strength,” he says. This might seem like an exaggeration, until you learn that Paul competed in 54 world championship matches to determine the world’s strongest man, played in Scotland’s Highland Games (participating in events like the caber toss and hammer throw) for 25 years, and spent six months traveling with Joan Jett and her entourage as her personal bodyguard. More recently, he served as the Strength and Conditioning coach for Lafayette College.

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