As you prepare to get the kids off to school in the next few weeks, I thought it might be a good time to lobby for what I feel is an important part of the back-to-school “to do” list. In addition to the proper pens, pencils, papers and other tools of the educational experience, so too is proper nutrition that makes all of those tools work for the student.

If you rely on your school’s cafeteria, the good news is that the new school nutrition standards now in effect are moving toward healthier selections, but not without controversy. The USDA acknowledges that schools have come a long way toward providing healthy meals, with more than 90 percent of schools meeting the standards. However, statewide, Missouri has seen a five percent drop in participation in school lunch and breakfast programs during the 2012-2013 school year.

Why? Some blame new guideline regulations that involve grains, fruit and sodium.

One requires all grain servings to be rich in whole grains (more than 50 percent whole-grain) which affect the types of pastas, bread, rolls and pizza crusts which can be served. The current rule requires half the grain servings to be rich in whole grains. This puts traditional macaroni and cheese on the endangered list, but some kitchens are having success with whole grain recipes, when suppliers don’t have substitutes.

Another rule would require children to pick up a fruit or vegetable with each meal. Some schools have noticed an uptick of kids incorporating fruits and veggies in their meal choices, but some school nutritionists fear a requirement to do so will lead to more food going in the trash can.

The third issue is the steep reductions in the amount of sodium (salt) allowed in food. By 2017 that target is 935 milligrams total in an elementary school lunch and 1,080 milligrams in a high school lunch. This is also proving difficult for suppliers and manufacturers who produce processed items like pizzas, chicken nuggets and many condiments that go into school lunches.

Until these issues get settled, I’ve become a big fan of cold lunches for kids. They are more apt to eat most of it, which means less waste in the trash - and more benefit to the body. While the notion of making lunches can seem daunting to busy parents, consider the impact food has on your child’s ability to learn and thrive at school. How important?

According to the Centers for Disease Control Hunger due to insufficient food intake is associated with lower grades, higher rates of absenteeism, repeating a grade, and an inability to focus among students. Lack of adequate consumption of specific foods, such as fruits, vegetables, or dairy products, is associated with lower grades among students. Skipping breakfast is associated with decreased cognitive performance.

My advice is to keep it simple and make it healthy. Keeping it simple shouldn’t mean to stock up on processed lunch kits, as they tend to have high fat, sugar and sodium content. Instead, buy the meats and cheeses and breads they like- that also contain nutritional value, such as lean meats, reduced fat cheeses and whole grain breads or crackers. Don’t forget the lettuce and tomato.

Resist the urge to toss snack chips and cookies in on the side in favor of salad type vegetables and fruits like apples and oranges - the original fast food.

Spend some time each weekend to get lunches together for the next week. You can make your own snack packs, using small tubs to package your own unsweetened applesauce, hard boiled eggs or cut up celery and carrots with peanut butter. Tuna fish salad works well in this instance, as does trail mix or peanuts. Wishing your child a healthy - and successful school year.

Erin Plumberg is a dietitian and nutritionist at St. Mary’s Medical Center in Blue Springs and can be reached at 816-655-5597.