The kids have headed back to school and packing a healthy lunch for your children is a great way to get them the nutrients they need to power through the school day. Unfortunately, lunch boxes are often filled with packaged ‘convenience’ foods like full-calorie soda, chips, and cookies. This can add up to a lot of excess fat, sugar, sodium and calories that may contribute to long-term health problems like high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity. These extra calories may also make kids sluggish or cranky in the afternoons.
The American Heart Association recommends a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low fat or fat-free dairy or soy products, and foods low in saturated and trans fat, sodium and added sugars. “The healthy foods we eat help our body to grow, run, walk, think, move, sleep and fight off germs, so a healthy lunch is key to a successful school day,” says Carol Throckmorton, RD/LD, Clinical Dietitian with CHAMPS at the University of Iowa. When deciding what to put in your child’s lunch box, it’s a good idea to include foods from different groups. Focusing on variety not only makes lunches more interesting, but also helps your children enjoy a balanced lunch that will provide the energy and nutrients they need to grow, play, learn and stay healthy.
The basics for a healthy lunch box: 1. One serving of vegetables or salad and one serving of fruit (fresh, canned or dried can all count).
2. One serving of a low-fat or fat-free milk or dairy item such as a low-fat cheese stick, a yogurt cup, or some cottage cheese. Soymilk and soy yogurt are good alternatives for children who are lactose-intolerant.
3. One serving of lean meat, chicken, fish, eggs, nut butter (peanut, almond, soynut, sunbutter [from sunflower seeds], beans (including edamame soybeans). or another protein source.
4. A healthy drink such as water or 100% juice. Easy, quick ways to pack a balanced healthy lunch with punch:
• Keep food safe! “Sandwiches containing perishable foods can be frozen the night before and put into the lunch bag just before the child leaves for school. They will be thawed by the time the children are ready to eat them,” says Thockmorton. “An alternative would be to include an ice pack to keep the lunch chilled until eaten. A container of milk can be frozen and serve the same purpose as the ice pack.”
• Swap the white bread for whole wheat varieties for added boosts of fiber. Whole wheat bread can also be more filling.
• If your kids are bored with the traditional sandwich, try whole wheat pita or flatbread/tortilla wraps that you can quickly turn into sandwich swirls. • Switch from bologna, salami, pastrami or corned beef, and other fatty luncheon meats to low-fat alternatives such as lean turkey or chicken breast.
• Sneak veggies like lettuce, cucumbers, or shredded cabbage in between slices of lean turkey or ham on a sandwich or in a wrap.
• Use peanut butter in moderation: 2 tablespoons (about the size of a ping pong ball) provides about 190 calories and 16 grams of fat. Reduced fat peanut butter and other nut butters are also a good option.
• Try using a thinner layer of peanut butter and substituting jelly with banana or thin apple slices for a healthier spin on an old favorite.
• Skip high-fat mayonnaise. Consider a small serving of reduced fat mayonnaise or skip it entirely and try using something with more flavor and fewer calories like mustard instead.
• Include low-fat or fat-free cottage cheese with carrots, cherry tomatoes, fresh berries, or melon. This makes for a calcium-rich, high-protein lunch.
• Swap traditional fried chips for baked potato or corn chips.
• Aim to make snack treats occasional rather than everyday items. A small serving of animal crackers are lower in fat and sugar than regular cookies, doughnuts, brownies and other baked goods.
For more tips on raising healthy kids, log on to www.heart.org/healthykids.