This may sound like the normal routine for many families at the start of the school year, but local nutrition experts say balanced meals are essential for students and their parents to grow mentally and physically.
"A diet is just the way you eat, if you're medically involved you may be on a low sodium, low cholesterol, low fat diet, but for an average child they need a balanced diet that includes all of the food groups we've grown up knowing about," said Bartow County Extension Office Coordinator Kathy Floyd, whose duties include providing nutritional and food safety information. "They need some fruits, they need some vegetables, they need protein, calcium -- which is generally provided through dairy products -- and all of those are so they can grow and mature in a healthy manner, and it helps them to build muscles and stay mentally alert."
Both Bartow County and Cartersville City schools follow the United States Department of Agriculture's school lunch guidelines, which according to their website "recommend that no more than 30 percent of an individual's calories come from fat, and less than 10 percent from saturated fat. Regulations also establish a standard for school lunches provide one-third of the Recommended Dietary Allowances of protein, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, calcium and calories. School lunches must meet Federal nutrition requirements, but decisions about what specific foods to serve and how they are prepared are made by local school food authorities."
Bartow County Schools Director of Nutrition Pam Blakeney said in Bartow the school lunch menu has been tweaked to improve the foods that students already enjoy.
"All of our milk is half percent fat or lower. We don't have any whole milk and even our flavored milk is low fat," Blakeney said. "If I can give them a flavored milk and they'll drink milk, then that's the best way for them to get calcium."
Other changes include finding ways to meet the guidelines by supplementing foods -- something students may not realize at lunch.
"We're adding whole grain to a lot of meals that they wouldn't necessarily notice," Blakeney said.
For example, Blakeney said school hamburger and hot dog buns are more than 50 percent whole grain.
"That switched easy for us and there was no backlash, so we're in the process of switching some other whole grains like spaghetti noodles," Blakeney said.
Both Floyd and Blakeney said it was important for students to begin their school day with a balanced breakfast, whether it is from home or eaten at school.
"For any [student], breakfast being one of the most important meals of the day, a protein product will hold them longer," Blakeney said.
Blakeney said an example of a high-selling breakfast item is a turkey sausage biscuit, which she said is an alternative to pork as a source of protein.
"It's been proven for years that everyone -- children especially, since they're going to school and using their brains -- need to have a balanced breakfast," Floyd said. "It doesn't have to be a lot, but something that provides a balanced breakfast for them to get a good start so they can think, they're not hungry, and so they can stay alert."
Floyd said although products like energy drinks may be marketed toward young people and are sometimes used by students to stay alert when studying, the products can have adverse effects later on.
"What we find is that [energy drinks] interrupt sleep patterns and sleep is when young bodies grow and so anything that has a lot of caffeine and a lot of [herbal stimulants] ... increase heart rate," Floyd said. "Those [herbal stimulants] are supposed to enhance performance, so they're made for sports drinks and energy drinks, and there are times where they may be useful, but as a everyday thing, children and adolescents don't really need it."
She said there also are food products that have been marketed as improving brain function, there is no real substitute for nutritious meals.
"The proven fact is you have to have the nutrients, you have to have the glucose, you have to have all of those things in order for your brain to function at its best level," Floyd said, "and so all of it works together, there's not one [food] in particular we can say 'eat [this food] and you'll have lots of brain power."
She said it was important when reading about foods claiming to improve mental performance to consider the various factors involved in the research
"It depends on what research you look at, and we've always said you can find research to support just about anything, but you have to look at the trials and you have to look at the people involved and if they actually look like you," Floyd said. "If it's elderly people over 80, then it doesn't really apply [to students]."
She added, "Because they know these [foods] enhance certain performances of the body it gets called a 'brain food' ... but all they're doing is providing the nutrients the body needs and if you get into a situation where you're lacking something, like when sailors would lack vitamin C and get scurvy, people tend to internalize that as 'I need to eat all fish because that's a brain food.' I would say moderation but variety is going to be the best thing unless you have a medical need."
Blakeney reiterated Floyd's statements on variety in foods.
"That's the beauty in having some variety, we don't get bored, it's not just about chicken fingers and french fries, and if you have a variety of things for the child to eat then that in turn makes them perform better overall," Blakeney said.