Outfit for the first day? Check. Backpack? Check. Lunch box? Check. A nutritious lunch to pack in that new lunch box? Oops.

Don’t worry; you’re not alone. But with childhood obesity levels more than tripling in the last 30 years, packing a nutritious lunch is becoming more and more essential.

“Packing a healthy lunch is a great way to provide children with the proper nutrition they need to perform well in school. Unfortunately, lunch boxes are often crammed with prepackaged foods full of calories, sugar and sodium,” says Alison Pittman, M.S.N., RN, CPN, assistant professor in the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Nursing. “This excess can leave kids feeling lethargic and unmotivated by mid-afternoon and ultimately contributes to long-term health problems like obesity, diabetes and heart disease.”

When packing a lunch, one of the easiest ways to stay healthy is to follow the MyPlate guidelines from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Pittman says. MyPlate can serve as a guide for packing lunches that taste good and provide the energy and nutrients children need to excel during the school day.

The following are major recommendations from MyPlate that will help you pack a lunch your child will enjoy:

  • Make half of your child’s lunch consist of fruits and vegetables. Have your child help pick out fresh fruits and vegetables at the store or farmer’s market and then help prepare lunch the night before. Preparing lunch may encourage your child to taste what he or she is creating. Kids love to “dip” foods, so try providing a small container of dip such as ranch dressing, peanut butter or hummus.
  • Make sure half the grains in your child’s diet are whole grains. This is becoming easier as more whole grain breads, crackers, bagels and even pretzels show up on store shelves. Try brown rice instead of white rice, or whole grain noodles instead of traditional pasta.
  • Pack water or low-fat, unflavored milk instead of sugary sodas and juice drinks. Pack a water bottle with lots of ice in his/her lunch box so it will still be cool at lunchtime. If you do provide juice, make sure it is 100 percent fruit juice and limit to eight to 12 ounces per day for the school-age child (four to six ounces for preschoolers).
  • Watch the sodium content. The updated USDA guidelines recommend 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day for children. When you consider that most fast food kids’ meals contain over half this amount, it’s easy to exceed this guideline. Foods prepared at home are often lower in sodium (and fat and calories, for that matter) than commercially prepared foods.

“With a little planning, creativity and input from your child, packing a healthy lunch that includes the essential food groups will become more of a routine than a daunting chore for parents,” Pittman says.

For more information, including helpful posters for the fridge, sample lunch and snack ideas, and other tips, visit the MyPlate website.

— Jennifer Fuentes

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