Contrary to widespread belief, most children would eat healthier if given the chance.
In many cases, a child’s diet would significantly improve if he or she were regularly offered fresh fruits and vegetables while served processed foods less often.
Packing a wholesome lunch for your child is an ideal way to take advantage of this opportunity.
The first step is to involve your children; allow them to assist with planning and preparing their lunches in age-appropriate ways.
With much guidance, let your kids help decide what will go into their lunch boxes. This not only ensures that they will eat their lunches, but it teaches and reinforces positive eating habits.
Keep in mind, however, that parents are the ultimate decision-makers regarding what is and is not appropriate to pack in a lunch. Oftentimes, children will eat what you send even if they complain about it at home.
Allow children to pick out their lunch boxes at the beginning of the year; this gives them ownership and increases the likelihood that they will eat what is in it. Be sure to use an insulated lunch bag with an ice pack to keep lunches cold.
To pack a well-balanced lunch, be sure to include:
- A “main dish,” such as a sandwich or wrap, containing fiber-rich whole grains and a lean source of protein.
- Fresh fruit or, occasionally, unsweetened natural applesauce or fruit canned in water, juice, or extra-light syrup.
- At least one serving of fresh vegetables.
- Another option is a serving of low-fat or non-fat dairy such as yogurt, cottage cheese, or slices of reduced-fat natural cheese; if this makes your child’s lunch too large, occasionally pack it in place of a fruit or vegetable and then send a fruit or vegetable as part of your child’s snack.
- A bottle of plain water.
Ingredients for a Healthy Lunch
- High-fiber whole grains (with two to three grams of fiber per slice, or three to five grams per serving), such as 100 percent whole wheat: bread, bagels (try miniature bagels), tortillas, or pita bread.
- Fresh, all-natural lean and skinless chicken or turkey breast, chopped or sliced.
- Lean, lower-sodium fresh and natural deli meat; while I recommend avoiding processed meats, if you buy packaged lunch meat, select brands that contain no more than 20 percent of the Daily Value for sodium (less than 480 milligrams) and are “natural,” with minimal processing and preservatives.
- Low-sodium tuna fish (chunk light is lowest in mercury) or salmon canned in water; flaked fresh salmon or other fish.
- Natural nut butters: Choose those that are lower in sodium, with no more than 50 milligrams of sodium per serving, and that contain no added sugar.
- Hummus or reduced-fat cream cheese, plain or flavored.
- Reduced-fat/light natural cheeses; avoid processed cheeses, such as American.
- Low-fat or non-fat yogurt or cottage cheese, with or without fruit. Try serving plain, unflavored yogurt with fresh fruit, such as strawberries or blueberries; it may take time for your child’s taste buds to adjust.
- A hard-boiled egg.
- Fresh fruit: Be creative and try different varieties of your regular stand-bys or send something new, such as cut-up mango or papaya, kiwi, berries or chopped melon.
- Fresh vegetables, plain or with a small amount of hummus or low-fat dip: baby carrots; carrot, celery, or jicama sticks; snap peas; sliced cucumber, mushrooms, or radish; chopped broccoli and/or cauliflower; bell pepper strips: red, yellow, orange, green; miniature tomatoes, such as cherry, grape or plum.
- Pack dark-green lettuce, baby kale, spinach/baby spinach leaves, tomato slices, and/or other vegetables in a separate container to be placed on top of a sandwich or wrap.
- An occasional treat (about once per week): two to three small cookies (such as Nilla Wafers or Animal Crackers), a small homemade baked good, a few pieces of small candy, or a small serving of 100 percent fruit juice.
- Other “treats” that may be sent more frequently include a special note from mom, dad, or other family members and stickers.
Pre-packaged foods and beverages, which have become popular lunch box items, are highly processed and typically full of calories, sugar, fat and/or sodium, along with preservatives and additives. At the same time, these products tend to be low in vital nutrients, including fiber, vitamins, minerals and disease-fighting antioxidants.
So think outside of the box when packing your child’s lunch!
Make a “gourmet” salad bursting with fresh vegetables and other healthy toppings your child enjoys (include low-fat dressing in a separate container). Send a wrap or pita stuffed with her favorite veggies. Pack low-sodium vegetable juice for an added boost.
When you teach healthy eating habits at home and then send your child to school with an appetizing yet wholesome lunch, you lay the foundation for a lifetime of good health.
About the Author: Keeley Drotz is a registered dietitian who lives in McKinney. With over 10 years of experience, her specialization is working with children and families. She recently published her first book, The Poisoning of Our Children | Fighting the Obesity Epidemic in America, which is about the prevention of childhood obesity and contains additional lunch and snack ideas. Please visit Keeley’s websites at PoisoningOurChildren.com and TGBGnutrition.com.