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How to pack healthy school lunches

Preparing healthy school lunches together can help set children up for success
healthy school lunches

Good childhood nutrition is key for physical and cognitive development, academic performance and overall well-being, and healthy habits established early on tend to carry into adulthood for lifelong health.

During the school year, children consume almost half of their daily calories at school, so if you plan to pack your child’s lunches this school year, it’s important to make sure they provide the nutrition they need to thrive. Registered dietitian Priscilla Benavides, MS, LD, health educator with Texas A&M Healthy South Texas, has some tips to make packing school lunches part of your family’s healthy lifestyle.

Why pack school lunches?

Although they’ve gotten a bad rap over the years, lunches provided by schools in the United States are required to follow nutrition standards set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to ensure they meet students’ nutritional needs. However, many parents prefer to have more control over what their children eat, and sending lunches from home is a good way to do that. Packing healthy school lunches also creates opportunities to teach children about nutrition.

“Get kids involved in packing their own lunches,” Benavides said. “Packing lunches together is the perfect opportunity to teach about food groups and what to pick from each group. Teaching them how to eat wisely when they’re young impacts their behaviors and food choices their whole life.”

An added bonus in getting the kids involved: they’re more likely to eat what they’ve chosen and prepared themselves.

How to pack a healthy school lunch

Well-rounded meals contain foods from all five food groups: fruits, vegetables, grains, protein and dairy. To get the mix right, Benavides recommends using the USDA’s MyPlate method at each meal, which says half your plate should be dedicated to fruits and vegetables, a quarter to protein and a quarter to grains with some dairy on the side.

“There are many lunch containers on the market, like bento-style boxes, that are divided into three sections to make portion control easy,” Benavides said. “Dedicate the largest section to fruits and vegetables, then the two smaller sections to grains and protein.”

While these are good general guidelines to help build a meal, Benavides says your child’s specific nutritional needs depend on their age, sex and activity level. Once you know how many calories your child needs each day, spread them out evenly across their meals. For example, a moderately active 7-year-old girl needs about 1,600 calories per day, which means her lunch should provide about 500 total calories. From there, you can determine how much of each food she needs by selecting a MyPlate plan from the USDA’s website.

Pick from each food group

This is where Benavides says the educational part begins. She suggests printing out a color-coded chart that lists all the food groups and some options within each. Then, let your children pick which foods from each category they want to pack for their lunch.

“This is a good way to empower your kids to build their own lunch, but it also ensures they’re picking from each food group for a balanced meal,” Benavides said.

Load up on fruits and vegetables

The bulk of foods should come from vegetables and fruits, which are full of vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants. Vegetables are preferred by dietitians because they don’t contain as much sugar as fruit. However, most kids would rather not eat vegetables, so Benavides suggests making them fun by cutting them into shapes and serving with dips.

“Kids love to dip their foods,” she said. “It’s a way for them to ‘play’ with it and explore it, which makes it more engaging and interesting. Plus, dips add flavor to otherwise bland cucumbers or celery.”

Some healthy dips include nut butters, hummus, guacamole, yogurt and reduced-fat dressing. Serve these with baby carrots, celery sticks, cucumber slices or sweet pepper strips. You can also add vegetables into sandwiches and pizza.

“Make it a game,” Benavides said. “You can make adding different vegetables to pizza a challenge. Tell them the most colorful pizza wins. They’ll be proud to try their creation, and you win by getting them to eat more veggies.”

For fruit, opt for whole fruit over juice. Frozen, dried and canned fruit are good alternatives if you’re worried about spoiling, but make sure the canned versions are in their own juice and not heavy syrup. Children over 7 can have eight to 12 ounces of fruit juice per day; if they want more, dilute it with water.

Pack protein

Protein is essential for growing bodies and minds because it makes enzymes and hormones and is an important building block of muscles, bones, skin, blood and cartilage. Incorporate protein into your child’s diet with lean meats, eggs, nuts and nut butter, beans and seeds.

Other good protein options are leftover meat from dinner, edamame, tuna, hummus, almonds, pistachios, cashews and peanut butter.

Whole the grains

At least 50 percent of the grains or starches your child eats should come from whole grains. White refined options are depleted of the beneficial fiber, vitamins and minerals of whole grains. Choose items like 100 percent whole-wheat bread, quinoa, rice, cereal and whole-grain tortillas, pasta, wraps and bagels.

“Most food manufactures make a big deal out of whole grain products, so it’s often stated somewhere on the front of the label,” Benavides said. “When shopping for prepackaged items, look for whole-wheat or whole-grain flour in the ingredients list.”

Don’t forget dairy

Dairy is important for childhood health because it’s rich in calcium and vitamin D, two nutrients that help to strengthen bones and teeth. Milk-containing foods like yogurt, milk and soymilk also provide potassium, which supports healthy blood pressure and cardiovascular health.

After 2 years of age, pediatricians recommend children consume fat-free or low-fat dairy products to minimize the amount of saturated, or “bad,” fats in their diet. Choose 1 percent or skim milk and low-fat cheese and yogurts. If your child has a milk sensitivity, calcium-fortified soymilk is a good alternative.

Make it a family matter

Mealtime is bonding time for most families, and preparing healthy school lunches is another chance to connect with your child.

To make it fun, Benavides suggests creating games out of the process. For example, ask your child to pick two foods of the same color or starting sound. Help them draw faces on foods with icing or gel food colors. Experiment with creating homemade “lunchable” kits, use cookie cutters to cut shapes out of sandwiches and skewer fruit into kabobs.

“The school year can be a busy, hectic time for families,” Benavides said. “But preparing healthy school lunches with your kids can be a chance to spend more quality time together while teaching them valuable life skills.”

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