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How to Create a Healthy Meal for School, Part I

Healthy Alternatives for School Lunch

It's school time, and that means getting children up, dressed, fed and out the door in time for the bus. And don't forget about packing that all-important lunchbox. This year, make what's inside the lunchbox as exciting as the outside – and a little healthier, too!

Nutrition Is Key

Lunch is often a child's favorite part of the school day. They get to socialize with their friends and get rid of some of that built-up energy, which is important to them and to the teachers. But what they put in their mouths is just as important. Make sure what you're sending gives them the energy and nutrition they need for the rest of the day.

"Kids need that midday break, and they need the fuel they get from the food you pack," says Leanne Ely, nutritionist and author of Healthy Foods: An Irreverent Guide to Understanding Nutrition and Feeding Your Family Well (Champion Press). "As parents, we are responsible for feeding souls, not merely filling holes. Give them quality nutrition for lunch if you expect a quality performance at school."

Sounds easy enough, right? Wrong. If you've ever had lunch with your child, you've noticed that not many kids actually eat their lunch. Some only eat the dessert, rip the sandwich apart and nibble on the filling or just eat the chips. Then there's the lunch trading that has gone on since the beginning of time. And, somehow, your child always ends up with only sugar-sweet food when the trading is done. How can you make a lunch that will be eaten and not traded, thrown away or picked apart?

Another Sandwich?

Most of us go to the pantry, take out the loaf of bread, grab the sandwich meat or peanut butter and start making a sandwich without even thinking. It's called a "sandwich rut." Snap out of it! While sandwiches are a good addition to any lunchbox and can be healthy, kids can grow tired of them (don't you?).

Instead of using bread, put the sandwich filling into a tortilla or pita. A bagel or biscuit that's been split open makes a fun, kid-sized sandwich. But who says a healthy lunch has to have a sandwich? Here are some fun ideas to try:

  • Cubes of deli meat and cheese with crackers
  • A container of yogurt with a fun topping such as raisins, granola or their favorite cereal crushed up
  • Celery stuffed with peanut butter or cheese
  • Cottage cheese and fruit
  • Ranch dip with carrot and celery sticks
  • Apple wedges (dip in orange juice or lemon-lime soda to prevent browning) and peanut butter or flavored yogurt for dipping
  • Pasta salad
  • Rice cakes with peanut butter or cream cheese

"You can have bean dip, some chips and veggies for something different, too," Ely says. "Variety is the spice of life for everyone, including kids. If they like Mexican food, why not give them a quesadilla and some salsa in a little plastic tub instead of always giving them a sandwich? I think the best way to avoid burnout in the lunchbox department is to make a list of what your child likes (and make sure it's reasonably healthy – you don't want them wigging out on too much sugar and additives at school every day!) and build a lunchbox menu from there."

Judy Ring from Cocoa, Fla., makes pizzas out of biscuits for her children. "I do it two ways," she says. "One is to roll the biscuit real thin, put some pizza sauce, pepperoni and cheese on one side, fold over and seal edges and bake as you would biscuits. With these I also put in a small container of pizza sauce for them to dip it into. Other times I take a biscuit and shape it to the inside of a muffin tin, add pizza sauce, cheese and pepperoni in the indentation and bake as you would bake a regular biscuit." Other fillings Ring has tried are meatballs with a little sauce, small pieces of bacon with scrambled egg and Sloppy Joes. "The kids like these a lot better than peanut butter sandwiches," she says.

And who says their lunch has to be cold? Ely suggests sending soups, stews, pasta or last night's leftovers. "The new wide-mouth thermos has come a long way since the days of breaking thermoses," she says. "They stay hot, pack easily and work perfectly." Here are some other hot lunch ideas:

  • Macaroni and cheese
  • Chili
  • Turkey dogs with mustard for dipping
  • Mini quiches
  • Tortellini with spaghetti sauce for dipping
  • Hard-boiled eggs and cubed ham

Marilyn Lux from Douglasville, Ga., likes sending hot dogs in her daughter's lunchbox. She found by adding hot water to the thermos along with the hot dogs, they stay hot. "My daughter said they were still warm at lunch," she says. "Her lunches served at school are hardly ever warm."

Snacks and Such

The highlight of lunch for many kids is the snack. It's so easy to toss a few cookies in a bag and be done with it, which is fine occasionally, but there are many healthy alternatives to those cookies. Instead of sugary-sweet snacks try the following:

  • Sugar-free Jell-O Jigglers
  • Cubes of fruit threaded on a straw
  • Trail mix
  • Raisins, dried apricots, dried cranberries or a combination
  • Cereal bars
  • Cereal (choose one that's not loaded with sugar – it's a great source of vitamins and minerals)
  • Pretzels with mustard for dipping
  • Mild salsa with tortilla chips
  • Applesauce sprinkled with cinnamon
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CeReality: 5 Families, 5 Stories, 1 Critical Meal

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