Children need to be well fed so they are ready to learn. Have you ever tried to think straight while your tummy is rumbling? Our bodies will operate optimally if they are properly fueled, and children will have an easier time staying focused in the classroom when they eat a good lunch. Eating three balanced meals a day also helps support the immune system, which helps children stay well.
It is easier than you think to pack a balanced lunch. Lunchboxes should ideally include at least three food groups, and you may be able to sneak all five in! Choose lean meats, complex carbohydrates and a fruit or vegetable. Encourage your child to drink low fat white at school every day. Children and teens need three to four servings of dairy a day to get the calcium they need. If your child does not like or tolerate milk, be sure you are providing alternate sources of calcium for strong and healthy bone growth.
Here are three basic tips for a healthy lunchbox:
(1) Include a variety of wholesome foods from the five food groups;
(2) allow your child to help make lunchbox choices; and
(3) include an element of fun or surprise (a treat).
Break the lunch into four parts: a main dish item, a fruit and/or vegetable, a treat, and a beverage. In choosing wholesome foods, do your best to limit overly processed foods. While some of these items may seem convenient, they offer less nutrition and there are healthy options that are just as quick and easy to put into a lunchbox. Take your school-age child to the grocery store with you once in a while and encourage him or her to choose a new fruit or vegetable. Let them pick out a loaf of bread at the bakery.
Here are some ideas for the main dish item:
- Try a wrap. Use whole wheat tortillas to make quick wrap sandwiches. Spread a tortilla with hummus or low fat cream cheese, then add a slice of baked ham and shredded lettuce. Wrap it up and it’s ready to go (hint: don’t tell your child it’s hummus, just call it a “new sandwich topping”!)
- A traditional sandwich is always a hit. Choose whole grain breads. Ask your child what he or she would like each week. It is okay if they want peanut butter on whole wheat bread every day, but encourage some variety. Try lean baked ham, turkey, or cheese sandwiches. Include extras like sliced cheese, sliced tomatoes, sprouts, or green bell peppers. Use cookie cutters to make fun sandwich shapes or cut slices of cheese. (It’s not a big deal if your child refuses the crust. You are better off removing the crust yourself than your child eating the sandwich and throwing a portion of it away with the crust. Children usually grow out of this eventually.)
- Hardboiled eggs are great protein sources and easy to eat. They can be shelled ahead to save the child time and mess or sliced onto bread for a sandwich.
- Cube leftover meats or cheeses for a “finger food” lunch. Include whole wheat crackers and fruit with them.
- Try slicing a banana muffin (low sugar added variety) in half and spreading it with peanut butter for a “muffin sandwich.”
Include a fruit or vegetable:
- Put fruit salad into a small container and also include a 4-ounce cup of yogurt. Tell your child they can use the yogurt as a fruit dip.
- Use a freezer pack to keep fruits cold and more appetizing.
- Include a container of ranch dressing for the baby carrots. It’s better to eat the carrots with ranch than to not eat any carrots at all.
- Pack a trail mix of raisins, dried cranberries and peanuts. Add a few chocolate chips or candies for fun.
- Smaller children often enjoy smaller, easy-to-eat fruits. Grapes, Clementine oranges or small bananas are easy.
Be sure to use a freezer pack for any perishable items such as meats, cheese, eggs, yogurt or milk. Treats are okay once in a while as long as the rest of the lunch is balanced first. Treats do not have to be food either; a little love note or sticker for younger children is a nice surprise for youngsters just learning to read.
It is also a good idea to do some planning ahead. Be sure to pick up fruits, meats, fresh breads and snack items on the weekend so you have the supply for the week. Think about baking a dozen quick banana muffins on the weekend, then freezing them for lunchboxes. Keep your pantry organized so that everything is at your fingertips.
Children form their eating habits at a young age. Balancing good nutrition with the occasional treat is an important lifelong skill. Start them off right by setting a good example and providing a healthy lunch for your children this school year.
Rust is a licensed, registered dietitian, nutrition coach and freelance writer. She is a provider for Real Living Nutrition Services® and the co-author of The Calorie Counter for Dummies®. Try the Diet Makeover to find out if your diet is in balance by going to http://www.rosannerust.com/.