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How to pack nutritious, delicious school lunch

Published 12:01am Sunday, March 20, 2011

As a registered dietitian working with families to make healthier changes in nutrition and activity, I often hear of the struggles parents have with packing school lunch, especially a healthy one. Packing a healthy lunch helps give your child energy for the afternoon and provides nutrients to help them grow strong. It doesn’t have to take a long time or be complicated; many options can be kept on hand and used throughout the week. So instead of a sandwich on white bread, chips, and a cookie, try substituting foods from the groups found below to put together a nutritious lunch that your child will enjoy.

Dairy/protein-rich foods: Lean deli meats such as turkey, ham, or roast beef are good choices. Some families make extra grilled chicken at dinner to include in lunch for the next day. Put it in a wrap with some lettuce and tomato, make chicken salad, or add it to some salad greens.

Hard-boiled eggs, peanut butter, low-fat cheese, yogurt, nuts, seeds, and tuna with whole-grain crackers are also great choices to pack to provide a healthy source of protein to keep afternoon hunger at bay.

Grains: Pick up a loaf of whole-grain bread or a whole-grain pack of mini bagels, tortillas, English muffins, or pita pockets. (Get the benefits of whole grains by checking the label to see if the word “whole” is in the first ingredient. Look for soft and smooth versions if your child prefers white.) Whole-wheat hot dog or hamburger buns are also great options! Mix up the usual by spreading peanut butter and jelly on a hot dog bun and adding a whole, peeled banana for a banana, or use cookie cutters to create fun sandwich shapes.

Plain popcorn or rice cakes are other good whole-grain options – choose these or baked chips, pretzels, or low-fat granola bars over snack cakes, candy, or regular chips.

Fruits: Popular and packable fruits include sliced apples, oranges, grapes, or strawberries, but the options are endless! Fruit cups in juice (instead of syrup) and natural applesauce are also good options if the fresh isn’t available.

Vegetables: Carrots, sliced cucumbers, celery sticks, broccoli florets, cherry tomatoes, bell pepper sticks, cauliflower, sugar snap peas  and kids like to dip, so throw in a small container with peanut butter, light ranch, hummus, bean dip, or salsa.

Does your child prefer vegetables cooked? Pack warmed broccoli, carrots, or green beans in a thermos; vegetable soup works too!

Beverage: Choose water, low-fat milk, or 100-percent juice (fruit drinks aren’t nutritionally equivalent – check the label to make sure it says 100 percent juice). Frozen water works great as an ice pack! A word of caution on the juice-like soda: excess juice consumption can lead to an energy imbalance and contribute to the development of obesity. Try to choose the real fruit instead of fruit juice, as the real fruit offers additional benefits, such as fiber, that are missing in the juice.

Involve your child: The best addition to packing a healthy lunch is the help of your child. Get their healthy lunch ideas, talk with them about what they would enjoy, and let them make choices about what to include out of nutritious options. Children are much more likely to eat what they helped prepare. In addition, getting them involved packing a nutritious lunch helps set them up for healthy habits throughout their life.

Lastly, try to avoid the prepackaged lunch meals, as they are often high in fat, sugar and sodium. Make your own version for a healthier option, such as using a whole-grain English muffin with a side of tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese for a mini pizza. And for something extra fast and easy, pour some low-sugar cereal in a covered dish, add a side of fruit or cut bananas in the cereal, and then all that is needed is a carton of milk. Using these tips helps ensure your child will have a nutritious mid-day meal “in the bag.”

Andrea Nikolai, MPH, RD, LDN is a Registered Dietician at Washington Pediatrics.

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