School Lunches: Keep Them Nutritious
Now that you’re returning to your school year “normal,” make sure the lunches you’re packing—or the kids are packing—are nutritious, as well as tasty. In most schools, kids don’t have the luxury of a refrigerator, microwave, or oven—not to mention the benefit of your guidance and help with lunch like they did over the summer.
However, that doesn’t mean you have to send them to school with the same old tired bologna sandwich, juice box, and a handful of chips. Lunches should be delicious and nutritious. After all, they have to keep your child energized and attentive for a day full of learning!
Food groups: Represent!
The first step to preparing a healthier lunch is understanding the basics. The MyPlate guidelines make it easy to find the right balance. Just divide your child’s plate (or lunch box, as the case may be) into quadrants. Fill half of it with fruits and vegetables, a fourth of it with lean protein, and a fourth with grains. Then add a serving of dairy to achieve the perfect nutritional ratio.
Once you (and your children) understand the basics, head for the grocery. But don’t walk in blind, wandering the aisles looking for things to buy—this too often leads to unhealthy purchases because a food either looks yummy or fun to your child. Plan your list with the MyPlate guidelines in mind. Think about the different food groups to make sure your child will get a variety of nutrients for lunch.
- Whole grains.This food group provides your child with fiber. That’s important because fiber keeps his digestive system healthy and energized from carbohydrates. There’s more fiber in bread and wraps made from whole wheat or grains, but if you have a picky eater who won’t eat any other bread than white, pick a loaf that is enriched with vitamins and nutrients.
- Fruits and vegetables. Sending sliced fruits and vegetables to school will give your child’s lunch color and make it look interesting—plus apple wedges, for instance, are much easier to eat than a whole apple. Focus on choices you know your child likes, rather than the ones you want him or her to eat. At home, does your child sneak green beans off her plate and onto the floor for the family dog? Chances are she’ll throw those away at school, too. But, if she loves carrots, those are the perfect veggies to send to school. Send along a small cup of hummus or ranch dressing to dip them in. Dipping is always fun—and can help ensure the veggies are eaten.
- Something sweet. Your aim is for good nutrition, not perfect nutrition. Hence, not everything has to be 100 percent healthy. In fact, sending your child’s favorite treat for a lunchtime “dessert” may prevent him from trading a healthy part of his lunch for some of his classmate’s cookies. Remember the MyPlate guidelines, however, and make this the smallest portion of your child’s lunch.
Read the labels
Be on the lookout for brands marketed as kid-friendly. These products tend to have extra sugar in them and are usually no better than sending your children to school with a bag of candy. Even some yogurts, granola bars, and fruit-flavored snacks have excessive sugar. Be sure to check the nutrition labels—and teach your children to do so—on the package to decide if that product is a healthy option or if you want to look for something that is more mom-friendly.
Pre-cut foods for ease of eating
Foods that are easy to eat get eaten. It’s that simple. Young children can become frustrated if a food is too difficult to prepare. In order to prevent difficulties, look through your child’s lunch and see if there is anything that can be simplified.
- Cut sandwiches into halves or quarters so they are easier for small hands to hold. There are even fun sandwich cutters (or cookie cutters!) you can use that make star, heart, or even dinosaur-shaped bread!
- Slice fruit and veggies into bite-sized pieces. Watermelon and peaches can be messy when bites have to be taken out of them. Apples, too, can be challenging—especially if your child has any loose teeth! Cutting them up so they can be eaten with a fork, fingers, or toothpicks will make them less sticky for your child to eat. Certain fruits, like oranges may also be difficult for young children to peel, so remove the peels when you pack them.
Choosing a healthy beverage
Many schools have a milk program students can sign up for to receive dairy with their lunches. However, if you choose not to participate in the program, be careful about what you do send with your child to drink.
Everyone knows sodas are loaded with sugar and should be avoided in a lunch pack, however, many people may not be aware that some juices can be just as sugary—especially ones marketed specifically for kids. While a sugary juice box can be a fun treat occasionally, , they shouldn’t be made a part of your child’s regular lunchtime. Instead, send a bottle of water or “light” juice that is low on sugar. Homemade iced tea is also a good option.
Involve your kids in the process and make the planning a preparation part of an ongoing family activity. Earlier we talked about taking the kids to the grocery with you to help pick out the items that will go in their lunches. But don’t stop there. Let them help you bake some healthy whole wheat muffins of have them skewer their own fruit. (See our CHEFS Mix series of blog posts on Kids in the Kitchen for more ideas on integrating your children into meal planning and preparation.
Packing school lunches! See more blogs on school lunch tips and ideas, right here at CHEFS Mix.
- School Lunches: Think Outside the Bag
- School Lunches: Keep Them Nutritious
- School Lunches: Finding Middle Ground
- School Lunches: Bento Box Revolution