Another school year has begun and across the country, mothers and caregivers are making preparations for lunches and snacks that will hopefully be consumed and not tossed in the cafeteria wastebasket. One of the best ways to avoid the trash can blues is to include youngsters in the initial planning stages. Start by letting them pick out a lunch box they will be proud to tote around. Then let them help decide what goes in it by asking if their preference would be grapes, orange slices, or a banana. Assume that if carrots are not eaten at home they will also not be eaten elsewhere, so leave them out. Although you should encourage children to try new foods, be sure to also include stand-by favorites such as pretzels or cheese slices.
Federal surveys have shown that children get approximately one-third of their daily calories at lunch, so it’s important to try and reduce foods that are high in sugar, fat and salt, as they can put children at risk for heart disease, diabetes, and other health-related problems in adulthood. You can’t avoid these types of foods completely, but you can cut down on the number of chocolate chip cookies you pack. Replace traditional potato chips with baked chips. Use pita bread or tortillas instead of white loaf bread. Substitute pre-packaged lunches that are high in sodium and fat, with homemade versions that can include low-fat meat and cheese selections.
Whenever in doubt, the Food Guide Pyramid still remains the standard for nutritional eating for children ages 3 and older: Bread, Cereal, Rice, and Pasta (6-11 servings a day); Vegetables (3-5 servings a day); Fruits (2-4 servings a day); Milk, Yogurt, and Cheese (2-4 servings a day); Meat, Poultry, Fish, Dry Beans, Eggs, and Nuts (2-3 servings a day); Fats, Oils, and Sweets (use sparingly).
Here are some additional tips that will entice children to eat more of the “good stuff.”
- Make boring sandwiches suddenly appear interesting by cutting them out with cookie cutters. Bake small pizzas in a square shape. Add sauce, cheese, green pepper strips for X's, and Pepperoni for O's. This can be put in a square, plastic sandwich container and served cold. Pasta salad is another option. Use fun-shaped and colored pasta, such as small shells, wagon wheels, or ABCs.
- Healthy snacks are just as important as nutritious lunches, so avoid prepackaged treats like cookies and candy. Instead opt for pretzels, graham or whole-wheat crackers, yogurt, cheese, sesame breadsticks, trail mix, rice cakes, applesauce, or pudding.
- Remember to always include a cold pack in your child’s lunch for their cold food/drinks to avoid contamination. Or freeze water bottles or juice boxes the night before (they will thaw out by lunch time). You can always send milk in your child’s lunch if they drink it, but never include soda!
- Tuck fun treasures in their lunch box like a funky pencil or eraser; throw in some fun stickers; or write a special note or little card to just say “I’m thinking about you today!” You could even jot down a silly joke to brighten their day and they can share with their friends. Slip in a colorful napkin to celebrate a special day such as a birthday or holiday.
- Lunch doesn’t always have to come in the form of sandwiches. Pack healthy appetizers and finger foods or a cold pasta dish.
Healthy Snack Ideas:
Ants on a Log: Spread peanut butter or cream cheese on celery sticks and top with raisins.
ABC Snax: Mix together 1 cup Post Honeycomb Letter Alpha-Bits; 1/4 cup raisins or dried cranberries; and 1/4 cup peanuts for a healthy trail mix.
Fruit Burritos: Spread a tortilla with peanut butter and add sliced fruit such as strawberries, apples, and/or bananas. Fold the ends and wrap up tightly.
Granola Bars: These are a much better alternative to candy bars. But read the label to make sure the fat or sugar content is low.
Nuts and Seeds: This delicious snack choice has lots of protein, minerals, and vitamins. They are also high in fat – but in a good way.
Frozen Fruit Bars: Make and freeze juice pops with real fruit juice. You can also add small chunks of fruit for added fiber. Frozen grapes are also a great kid pleaser.
Ready to eat cereal: Many ready to eat cereals such as granola or those which contain whole grain and no added sugar, are very nutritious.
Homemade muffins and quick breads: If your child likes muffins, they will love munching on homemade quick bread. Many of these recipes include pureed fruits and vegetables, which add to the nutritional content.
Non-dairy yogurt or jello packs and cheese: Make sure that these are purchased from the grocery shelves, not the chilled dairy compartment. These foods stay fresh and safe unless they are opened. Individual applesauce servings is another good choice.
FUN TIP: Visit the U.S. Department of Agriculture to see the revised pyramid plan, as well as find an interactive online game for kids, coloring pages, and more at http://www.mypyramid.gov/.