Tasty Home-Made Lunch for School
Once it's time to start getting kids ready for the school year, parents are often challenged with how to ensure their children eat healthy lunches that don't pack on the pounds while they are there. This presents a definite dilemma given that a large number of children and teens today are overweight, putting them at higher risk for developing type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and, ultimately, heart disease.
"The percentage of obese children has nearly doubled in the last 20 years," says Netty Levine, a registered dietitian at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, Calif. "And given that kids spend most of their day in school, the only way you can ensure that that they're going to eat healthfully is to help them pack a lunch from home."
Although schools have improved the nutritional value of lunches in the last decade, the meals still contain more fat than the government recommends. Further, many schools have added vending machines and a la carte programs, which do not have to meet the nutritional standards set by the U.S. government.
"Given these temptations, it can be a challenge for parents to provide food choices that kids will want to eat," Levine says. "That's why I suggest involving children in helping to prepare their lunch. It can be fun and teaches them how to choose foods that are tasty and low in fat."
Tips for Ensuring Healthy Eating at School
The following are some ways to help ensure your kids are eating healthy at school:
1. Make sure your child eats a healthy breakfast. Eating prior to going to school will help kids from being too hungry before lunch, so that they want to eat more. "Make sure your kids have enough time to get ready for school and eat breakfast," Levine says. "A quick breakfast can be a bowl of a low-sugar cereal, such as oatmeal or Cheerios and fresh fruit."
2. Teach your child that his bagged lunch needs to include foods from five food groups:
- Protein – Try meats lower in fat and cholesterol, such as chicken, turkey, tuna or lower-fat luncheon meats. For young children, you may want to cut lunchmeat sandwiches into different shapes using a cookie cutter. Lower-fat peanut butter can also be used on sandwiches.
- Grains – Try rolls, pita bread, lahvash for wraps, breadsticks, rice cakes, crackers or tortillas. Whenever possible, select the whole-wheat version. If your child will eat cold pasta salad, add low-fat meat or veggies with light salad dressing.
- Vegetables – Try adding tomato and lettuce to your child's sandwich, or for appeal, add colorful cut-up veggies in baggies such as cherry tomatoes, red, yellow and green peppers or baby carrots.
- Fruits – It's best to give your child fresh fruit that she likes first. The second choice would be to use canned fruit in its own juice or actual juice, such as that in juice packs. "Fruit has fiber and fills kids up, so that they want to eat less during the day," Levine says. "Juice, however, has the same calories as soda, so it should be served less often."
- Dairy – Try low-fat or non-fat milk, non-fat chocolate milk, low-fat cheese or any type of cottage cheese or yogurt with fruit.
3. Pack lunches into a thermal-lined lunchbox that includes a freezer pack to keep food refrigerated. "Another alternative would be to use boxes of milk, small bottles of water or juice that have been frozen in advance to keep foods cold, as they will have defrosted by lunch time," Levine says.
4. Provide morning or afternoon snacks for kids to help prevent them from getting hungry and wanting more than is in their lunch. Keep these bagged and ready in the refrigerator. These could include any of the following:
- Lower fat peanut butter and celery
- Nuts/seeds and trails mixes (nuts are a healthy fat and can be used in moderation)
- Grapes, cherries, pineapple pieces, pears and apples
- Dried cereals
- Fat-free pudding
- Graham crackers
5. Keep snacks that are higher in fat and calories to a minimum, so the child does not feel deprived. "For example, if your young child wants potato chips and candy, give him both, but limit the number of each to the child's age, like seven chips and seven M&Ms," Levine says.
"Emphasizing healthy food choices and involving children in the lunch preparation process can help them find foods that they enjoy without excessive fat, sugar and calories," Levine says. "Healthy lunch choices can be a carry-over from healthy menu and meal planning at home."