Kids Eating Healthy: How to feed them better at home and at school

Today, First Lady Michelle Obama urged Congress to pass legislation that calls for higher nutritional standards for school meals. In an op-ed essay appearing in Monday's edition of The Washington Post, Mrs. Obama wrote that the Child Nutrition Bill would push to add more fruits, vegetables and whole grains and include less fat and salt in school lunches and breakfasts, plus it would help eliminate junk food in vending machines. To help fight for change, Rachael Ray went to D.C. recently to encourage lawmakers to do something positive, too.

Think you can't make a difference? You can! Here's how to get involved in making healthy choices for your family, your kids and your local schools so everyone eats a little bit better.

Parents: Get involved! The School Nutrition Association tells you how.

1. Ask the school for permission to visit the cafeteria and try the food.
2. Introduce yourself to the nutrition staff. Direct any questions about ingredients or preparation to managers first; if you're not satisfied, ask to speak to the director.
3. Find out how you can participate in food-based decisions. A 2004 federal law requires schools to establish Local Wellness Policies, which are decided by a team of parents, students and administrators.
4. Check the newly launched, which posts up-to-date info on school nutrition programs.
5. Review the cafeteria menu with your children and encourage them to try healthy foods. Nearly every district offers fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains.

How to reach your representatives to make a difference »

Dr. Ian Smith, author of The 4 Day Diet and father of two, says healthy habits start at home.

1. Reduce sugar.
When sugar replaces nutrients, there's a problem. Limit sweets such as ice cream and cookies to one serving a day. And try making them a little healthier (i.e., using whole grain flour in your cookies or blueberry muffins). You don't have to use a ton of chocolate chips, either-just a few will do the trick.
Try this recipe: Peanut Butter Poodle Pancakes »

2. Put your freezer to work.
Kids love cold treats. Try freezing fruits like grapes or berries, which taste great by themselves or blended with milk and yogurt. My family also loves mini ice pops: Pour yogurt and fruit into an ice tray, insert a stick and freeze.
Try this recipe: Oliver's Summertime Straw-bana Treat »

3. Fake out your kids.
The way food looks matters to children. They don't make distinctions between healthy and unhealthy; they think "yucky" or "yummy." So take out the "yuck" factor. My wife makes a great avocado "ice cream." In a blender, mix avocado, banana, yogurt and some cocoa powder. It has the consistency of ice cream. Or add a few colored sprinkles on top of greek yogurt: instant dessert.
Try this recipe: Too-Tasty-to-Be-Good-for-You Cauliflower Mac 'n' Cheese »

4. Get them involved.
At the grocery store, we let each of our kids choose something, like their favorite cheese. Let them help in the kitchen. Also, plant a garden with five or six vegetables-tomatoes, potatoes and carrots are fun-and call it an "experiment." Kids love that word. They get to eat the fruits of their labor and see how food grows.
Try this recipe: Cauldron Fondue »

5. Improve your behavior.
Drink more water and less soda. You can't go around drinking soda and then tell them not to drink it. Children are great imitators. If your kids see you snacking on baby carrots or sliced fruit, they'll reach for it, too. Out of the house, they make their own choices. So if you deprive them of anything fun, they'll gorge the first chance they get. Teach them balance: a little of this, a little of that.
Try this recipe: Honey-Yogurt Dip with Fresh Fruit »

Try more of Rachael Ray's kid-friendly recipes »

Take a look at how some of America's school cafeterias are working to make change.

The Lesson: Start Small
Where: New York City Department of Education, New York City
When you serve 850,000 meals a school day, small changes make a big difference. Instead of getting rid of white bread options all at once, schools began serving sandwiches that were half whole wheat and half regular white bread. Once kids were used to that, the full switch to whole wheat was made.

The Lesson: Go Local
Where: Burlington School District, Burlington, Vermont
The staff receives an A-plus for their commitment to using locally grown products. Each week, hundreds of zucchini are shredded, then baked into zucchini bread. Local strawberries, raspberries and blueberries are turned into vinaigrette. Basil becomes pesto, and Vermont cheddar flavors freshly baked rolls.

The Lesson: Swap Out the Sugar
Where: Independent School District, San Antonio
After years of observing students' purchasing and eating behaviors, Southwest district officials realized that kids pay the most attention to their entrée choices and grab side offerings without much thought. So removing desserts and replacing them with fruit and veggies was an easy and effective switch.

The Lesson: Ask Students for Help
Where: West New York School District, West New York, New Jersey
As a fun project, this district asked students to help create their own healthy lunch menus, going on the theory that if kids are involved, they're more likely to eat and enjoy nutritionally balanced meals. A recent winner: Omar's ratatouille served with lemon chicken and quinoa.

The Lesson: Mix It Up
Where: Jackson Public School District, Jackson, Mississippi
The principal and several teachers came up with a radical idea: As of last year, Jackson elementary school teachers are required to eat meals alongside their students. With adults eating plenty of salad, and encouraging kids to do the same, fruit and vegetable consumption has gone way up. Teachers have also observed less overall food waste.

The Lesson: Get Back to Basics
Where: Archdiocese of Chicago, Chicago
Program directors knew that students would eat fewer packaged convenience items like chips if they were offered homemade alternatives. After developing their own healthy recipes, cafeteria workers now serve spaghetti sauce over whole grain pasta, as well as orange-cranberry bread and granola bars, and all items are trans-fat-free.

By Rachael Ray and Andrew Kaplan | Photography by Andrew Kaplan and Josephine Rustin


How Rachael and Yum-o! are making a difference »
Exclusive behind-the-scenes photos of Rachael in D.C. »
Rachael Ray's kid-friendly recipes »

Rachael Ray's 30-Minute Meals for the whole family »