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Back to school: How to encourage healthy dental habits away from home

Kids eating apples

School is just around the corner, which means backpacks and packed lunches await your children. Whether it’s their first year at school or they’re already climbing the ranks, you want to ensure they are making healthy choices when it comes to lunch. However, one aspect you may not have considered when it comes to lunch options is dental health.

All ages are at risk of developing cavities, especially if they don’t practice healthy dental habits, but “dental cavities are a prevalent disease in our childhood population,” said Kathleen Pace, D.D.S., assistant professor at Texas A&M University Baylor College of Dentistry.

Pace offers the following tips for parents to promote healthy dental habits in children:

1. Eat healthy foods at home

A healthy diet won’t just improve your child’s growth and physical health; it will also improve their dental health. Most natural foods contain lower amounts of sugars and aren’t as damaging to the teeth.

One of the easiest things you can do to ensure your child will make healthy, tooth-conscious decisions at school is to eat healthy foods at home. Aim to serve your child a balanced diet, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, dairy products and protein.

“Parents need to serve these foods at home so their children will imitate those eating habits when they are elsewhere,” Pace said.

2. Pack fruits and dairy

Natural is usually better when it comes to foods in general, and the same goes for snacks. Instead of popular snacks that may lead to unhealthy teeth or dental habits, try going the au naturel route. Packing fruit will satisfy your child’s sweet cravings and help them gain all the proper nutrients they need to grow healthy.

Milk doesn’t just help their bones grow stronger, it can also help their teeth stay healthier as well. One of the best snacks you can pack in your child’s lunch is a dairy product. Try throwing in a string cheese or a carton of milk to their lunchbox.

“Cheese or other dairies are a great way to end meals,” Pace remarked. “They can help protect tooth enamel, which is key to preventing decay.”

3. Avoid sticky and sugary foods

“In general, any food that is sticky, crunchy or has sugar can promote cavities,” Pace warned. Sticky foods like candy or gummies are not only loaded with sugar, but they can also be difficult to dislodge later. Anything that sticks to the teeth can potentially damage them or cause decay.

“Frequent sugar consumption is one of the worst things for your teeth that can cause tooth decay. Unfortunately, sugar is in almost everything,” Pace said. Avoid packing food with extra sugar like cookies, sugary beverages or candy in children’s daily lunches. Sugary, prepackaged snacks may be convenient short term, but they may also help a cavity thrive later on.

Check all the sugar content on any prepackaged foods or snacks, and opt for more natural or low-sugar foods instead. Switch out your kid’s sugar-bomb applesauce for the no sugar added variety. If you’re having trouble thinking of appropriate snacks, fruits with peels can satisfy your little one’s sweet tooth without promoting cavities.

4. Be active in their dental care

Participate in your child’s morning and nightly teeth cleaning rituals, and teach them the tools to keep those pearly whites healthy and happy. You can also take it a step further by acting as a dental advocate yourself to promote healthy habits in your children.

“Children love to imitate, so let them watch you brush your teeth and floss. Or even better, do it with them,” Pace suggested. “Really try to have your kids brush their teeth after breakfast.”

Healthy habits start at home, so try to make your child’s formative years fun and memorable. While brushing teeth, sing a favorite song or play a catchy tune on your phone to make it enjoyable, and always serve them healthy foods at home. These are habits they’ll take with them throughout their lifetime.

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