Back to school means back to packing lunch and having afternoon snacks on hand. But it's also a time to look at the problem of childhood obesity. Yes, it is getting better — overall rates have declined by 6.3 percent in recent years, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. But Tennessee continues to be ranked among the highest in the country for overweight kids.

"Current statistics show that 1 in 3 children are either overweight or obese in the state of Tennessee," says registered dietitian Allison Knott, founder of Anewtrition, a nutrition and wellness private practice based in Chattanooga.

So what can you as a parent do?

"The causes for childhood obesity are multifactorial," Knott says.

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Anne Braly

Physical activity and nutrition play an important role in the solutions, but the approach can take many forms and are influenced by a variety of factors.

"For example," she says, "building physical activity into a child's day requires a safe space like sidewalks, parks or a school recreational facility, which may not be readily accessible to all children."

And access to nutritional foods is another issue. Think food deserts, a common problem in inner-city neighborhoods.

"Other factors like oversized portions and excess intake of sugar-sweetened beverages — they all play a role in childhood overweight and obesity. Parents play an important role in influencing their child's health by encouraging intake of nutritious foods, limiting sugar-sweetened beverages, promoting physical activity and limiting screen time — both on TV and computers and smartphones."

So how can you encourage your children to eat healthy snacks? Make them fun, for starters.

"After-school snacking should be fun and nutritious," Knott adds.

She suggests coming up with creative ways to incorporate fruits and vegetables into lunches and snacks. Skewer them on wooden sticks, and pair them with dips like yogurt and hummus. Be sure to put an ice pack in their lunch box.

Limit snacks with excess added sugar such as ice creams, popsicles, candies and cookies.

"If your child loves something sweet after school, consider frozen grapes or other types of frozen fruit as an alternative to sugar-sweetened frozen treats," she says. "Or try a snack plate that includes vegetables, fruits, whole-grain crackers, cheese and chocolate-covered almonds or bite-sized cookies — remember portion size — for a mix of nutrient-rich produce, whole grains and a touch of sweetness."

And to quench their thirst, stock up with water you can infuse yourself with herbs and fruit. Knott says this is an easy way to keep your house free of sweet sodas.

Simply muddle a quarter cup of your favorite fruit with a few sprigs of your favorite herb, fill the pitcher and chill in the fridge to enjoy as a no-sugar-added, flavored beverage. You can even take it a step further by making ice cubes with herbs and fruit to add to the glass for a fun, colorful treat.

And here's another healthful afternoon snack that will be fun for the kids to make, too.

Fruity Frozen Greek Yogurt Cups

1 ripe banana

1 cup plain Greek yogurt

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 cup blueberries, halved

1/2 cup strawberries, diced

1 tablespoon chopped pistachios, optional

In a small bowl, mash the banana using the back of a fork. Stir yogurt and cinnamon into the banana-mash and combine. Divide the yogurt mixture evenly among 9 lined muffin cups. Top each cup with a combination of strawberries, blueberries and pistachios. Freeze until frozen through (about 3 hours).



Gluten is an important ingredient for pizza crusts. It's one of the things that make them both soft and crispy, but if you have sensitivities to gluten, you have to go without pizza unless you order the gluten-free versions at Old Chicago Pizza or Mellow Mushroom.

Now, the same crust is available for purchase at Earth Fare and Whole Foods. It's made by Smart Flour, using ancient grains such as sorghum and aramanth, making the crust not only gluten-free but also higher in protein, vitamins and minerals than other brands. Smart Flour crusts are also non-GMO, vegan, soy-free and kosher, too. You can buy the crust alone and top it with your favorite toppings, or buy a Smart Flour cheese pizza or margherita with mozzarella, tomatoes and basil.

I've tried them, and while I prefer a traditional crust, these are pretty good for what they are — low-fat and gluten-free, allowing those of us trying to follow a healthier lifestyle a little leeway when it comes to pizza night.

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