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Packing a Healthy Lunch

Like many parents, I face the daily challenge of trying to get my children to eat healthy.   Breakfast and dinner are more easily controlled, but lunches can be tricky as they are the one meal our children oftentimes eat away from home and out of sight.

Recently, school lunch programs have undergone scrutiny, and reviews reflect that some districts struggle with the balance of cost and quality.  Menus in many school lunch programs are too high in saturated fat and sugar and too low in fiber and nutrient-rich fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes.  In addition, organic options are generally not available.  Dairy and meat items often contain antibiotics, hormones and other toxins and produce can contain pesticides and herbicides.  Unless you are fortunate enough to have high-quality, nutritious options available in your school districts, a packed lunch may be the healthier option for your child. As parents, we can pack powerful, healthy lunches our children will enjoy. Here are some suggestions for making it happen:

1. Make lunch a joint effort

Making sure your carefully prepared lunch does not get thrown into the trash can be tricky, but not impossible. Your odds for success increase significantly when both you and your children are involved in the food selections and the preparation of the lunch. Ask for input from your child; they will be more likely to eat what they choose. Of course, as a parent, you need to set the boundaries on their choices and provide nutritious alternatives to teach healthy habits.

 2. “Checks” and balances

Proper nutrient balance is key to good health and requires that your meals offer a variety of foods. Each food group offers different vitamins and minerals needed for growth and development. Start by creating a checklist for children when developing your lunches.  Pending no allergies, the checklist should include five main food groups: whole grains, vegetables, fruits, dairy or dairy alternatives, and protein (animal or vegetable).  Note: Many parents are opting to limit or avoid grains due to food allergies (gluten) and/or health benefits.  A balanced and healthy lunch can be void of grains, so the checklist may comprise of 4 main food groups instead of 5.

While creating the lunch, have your child check off the items they are packing with the goal of having each food group included.  Create a weekly calendar with the four or five groups of foods on each day to help reinforce nutrient balance and variety (see example below).  For younger children, try using pictures instead of words and have them circle or color the picture each day lunch is packed. For older children who have mastered the inclusion of all the food groups, encourage them to choose a variety of colors in the produce groups.

For those parents looking to move away from the traditional sandwich, fruit and starch snack, experiment with using bento boxes! These adorable containers are a fun approach to lunch and each container provides space for a including foods from each group.  I recommend stainless steel over plastic.

3. Give it a powerful punch

One-third of our children’s calories, vitamins and minerals should be provided at lunchtime to carry them through to supper. A well-balanced lunch helps keep a child’s energy up and their blood sugar stable. A high fat and high sugar lunch can lead to an afternoon crash. The proper foods will help ensure your child’s success throughout the day.  Mealtimes should avoid processed foods, especially those with a endless list of ingredients. Read labels and avoid the following ingredients: sugar and sugar buzz words (i.e. high fructose corn syrup), other “ose”-ending words, other syrups, as well as trans fats (hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils). Instead, try to incorporate minimally processed, fresh and organic choices as much as possible.

Beverages can also often be a source of unwanted sugars and calories. Soda, sports drinks and juices all contain sugar. Encourage your child to drink water to stay hydrated. Send a slice of citrus fruit to give the water more flavor. Of course, milk is a source of calcium, vitamin D and phosphorus and a great choice for those who are not lactose intolerant, but I strongly encourage organic milk to avoid hormones and antibiotics.  Be sure to choose a lunch container that is insulated and offers a freezable insert.  You can purchase the stainless steel bento boxes with insulated bags and freezer inserts!

“Power foods” offer high amounts of nutrients to promote optimal health. More specifically, brainpower foods are those that support cognitive brain function, attention, mood and memory. The inclusion of the following power foods in your child’s brown bag may help support his or her brain health:

  • Salmon and other deep cold-water fish (omega-3 fatty acids)
  • Nuts and seeds (omega-3, vitamin E)
  • Whole grains (fiber, vitamin B and E, zinc)
  • Eggs (protein and choline)
  • Berries (essential vitamins/minerals, antioxidants, and omega-3)
  • Colorful veggies (essential vitamins/minerals and antioxidants)
  • Organic Milk and yogurt (protein, B vitamins, vitamin D and calcium),
  • Lean meats, beans and legumes (iron, zinc, B vitamins and fiber from beans and legumes)

Whether it is during the school year, for sporting events or summer camps, there is a need to practice packing healthy lunches/snacks.  Learn what works and what doesn’t for your children — and to be prepared with lunch menus that are acceptable to everyone.  Don’t forget to supply your child with healthy options for brain power and success in school!

The information provided in this post is for education only and is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor should it be used as a replacement for seeking medical treatment.

Copyright © Jaime Coffey Martinez, Nutrition CPR, LLC

A version of this article was originally posted at Lifetime-Weightloss.com.

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