Back to School: How to pack a power lunch for kids

Published 8:27 pm Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Andrea NikolaiBelieve it or not, school is upon us, and about 40 percent of elementary school students will be heading off to school with a packed lunch. If your child, no matter what their age, plans to pack their lunch this year, here is something to consider: new research published in the “Journal of Nutrition and Dietetics” looked at what more than 600 elementary school kids were bringing for lunch and found that 75 percent of the lunches failed to meet three out of five National School Lunch Standards. To help your child perform at his or her best, make sure the lunch you send is one that is filled with vitamins and minerals and provides the lasting energy needed to power through the school day.

Aim for at least three food groups in the meal, and four or five is great. The groups are protein, vegetables, fruits, grains (whole preferably) and dairy. A combination of foods with protein and fiber from these groups will help keep your child full until he gets home. The protein and dairy groups provide protein, while fruit, vegetables and whole grains provide fiber. Choose lean protein foods such as turkey, ham, roast beef, eggs, tuna, nuts/peanut butter, skinless chicken, beans, fat-free Greek yogurt, fat-free cottage cheese, low-fat (2-percent) cheese, and skim or 1-percent milk for the most nutrients with the least amount of calories. Let your child help you decide what to pack out of these foods because this greatly improves the chances your child will eat it. Lunch containers with compartments can help serve as a guide to packing multiple food groups. For example, fruit might go in the first compartment, whole grain crackers in the second and tuna or egg salad in the third.

Although some packaged lunches may seem to meet your child’s needs, look at their nutrition labels with a skeptical eye. Many are made of processed carbohydrates, which lack fiber, and are high in saturated fat and sodium. It is possible to assemble a quick and easy, nutritious lunch at home that your child will enjoy.

Approximately 59 percent of children pack sandwiches, making them a common choice. Use lean proteins and whole grain bread and include fruit or vegetables as sides or in the sandwich. Pack a banana and peanut butter or pear and turkey sandwich, fat-free yogurt, and vegetables with dip, and you’ve got a winning lunch with all five food groups. Have your child help you think of some fun sandwich combinations. Make sweets occasional treats instead of the everyday staple, and swap foods like fruit snacks for dried fruit and chips for nuts, sunflower seeds, baked chips or goldfish. Here are some ideas to give you some other winning combinations.

Build-your-own: Lunchable-type meals are fun for kids because they get to build the meal themselves. Each food is placed in a separate section, and your child makes their own combination. You might find you love this type of lunch, as no assembly is required, and your child has fun using their creativity. Pack the whole grain cracker, low-fat cheese, and lean meat (such as turkey or ham) version, or have them design their own pizza with a whole wheat bagel half or round sandwich-thin, spaghetti sauce, low-fat cheese, and vegetable and lean protein toppings. Others could be a build-your-own-taco or a yogurt parfait (fat-free yogurt, fruit, dry cereal, nuts and a cup to layer it).

Leftovers: Making a little extra the night before to use for lunches can make an easy option and add variety to the lunch routine. Leftover chicken can be shredded for sandwiches or mixed with some pasta. Plain pasta or rice can be mixed with beans and vegetables for a salad, and a baked potato could be used as a base for a build-your-own stuffed potato with cheese, beans, steamed broccoli, salsa and fat-free sour cream or plain Greek yogurt as some topping ideas.

On-a-stick: Use fruit, vegetables, low-fat cheese cubes or leftover meat, and thread it on skewers or toothpicks. I have pictures of skewered fruit in the office, and non-fruit loving kids often ask if they can make them. Parents report great results, even if their child isn’t excited about the fruits individually, so give this a try. Alternate turkey meatballs or pieces of a chicken breast with vegetables or fruits such as grape tomatoes, steamed baby carrots, peppers and pineapple chunks; skewer pieces of just vegetables or fruit (grapes, strawberries, peaches, melon), or even better, have your child help you brainstorm a fun, delicious and nutritious combination.

Andrea Nikolai is a Registered Dietitian at Washington Pediatrics and can be reached by calling 946-4134.